The tell-tale signs of banker burnout

“I can’t do this anymore,” I exclaimed as I burst into tears. Like a child who had just put a beloved pet to sleep, I buried my head into my mom’s shoulder and sobbed uncontrollably.

But I wasn’t a child. Far from it. I was actually a 22 year old investment banker, sporting my finest Brooks Brothers business casual (and living at home in an attempt to FIRE). It was 8 am and the birds were chirping. But I wasn’t waking up.

Instead, I was getting ready to go to bed, having just completed my first hazing ritual of a 36 hour work day. And I wanted out.

20 years later, well, it seems like times haven’t changed. And last month, 13 first-year bankers at Goldman Sachs created Powerpoint slides to shine a light on their plight.

With a pandemic that’s gotten long in the tooth, few industries has been spared from employee burnout. Yet there is something quite peculiar about the service-oriented world of bankers, consultants and lawyers.

I knew what I was getting into. I also knew that I’d be paid extremely well for the 3 am bed times. And I was quietly promised that it would all be worth it – at some point in the future.

So as 22 year old at a crossroads, how did I come up with a framework to decide if I should stay the course?

The presentation goes on. (FWIW, it should be noted that the sample size of n = 13, is quite small.) It turns out that 95 hour work weeks are not good for your mental health.

And life satisfaction (a proxy for happiness) is quite low.

As a parent, I wonder what I would tell my child if these anonymous quotes are actually true:

“My body physically hurts all the time and mentally I’m in a really dark place”

“What is not ok to me is 110-120 hours over the course of a week! The math is simple, that leaves 4 hours a day for eating, sleeping, showering, bathroom and general transition time. This is beyond the level of ‘hard-working’, this is inhumane / abuse”

The deck concludes with a series of recommendations including 80 hour weekly caps, finishing presentations one week in advance (sorry, I just need to LOL at that one), and respecting the no work on Saturday policy (which didn’t exist in my day).

My own experience was nowhere as grueling, but I still left shortly after that aforementioned 36 hour work day. I did not finish my 2 year commitment, instead opting for a less grueling part of financial services. (The sweet relief of 60 hour work weeks!)

And while my conversations with RadReaders usually don’t involve 100 hour work weeks, Type-A  knowledge workers often find themselves at a career crossroads asking themselves: Is this worth it?

Here’s a simple framework to apply a consistent and objective lens on your career. It starts with two simple questions:

  • What do you need?
  • What do you want?
(The bullets are by no means comprehensive)

Now just like $10k work, every single one of you will have different entries in each column.

A single person may care less than new parents about being available for bed time. A seasoned executive may care less about 401k matching than a college grad. And someone with massive student loans may over-index on annual compensation.

Regardless, applying just a tiny bit of inquiry can make complex career decisions much clearer. Even amidst a 95 hour work week.

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