Moritz Erhardt, a 21-year-old intern on a summer placement, was found dead in the shower at his temporary accommodation in east London last week, it was reported yesterday.
Unconfirmed reports suggest Erhardt died after he suffered an epileptic fit following three consecutive all-nighters as part of his internship. Scotland Yard are not treating the death as suspicious.
Merrill Lynch did not comment on the length of Erhardt's working hours. In a statement the bank said he was "popular among his peers and was a highly diligent intern with a promising future". John McIvor, head of international communications, said interns were given support with mentors, line management and an HR team.
A toxic combination
Chris Roebuck, visiting professor of transformational leadership at London’s Cass Business School and former global head of leadership at investment bank UBS, told HR magazine that the combination of exceptionally driven interns and the high pressure environment can be “toxic”.
“Interns are often not able to recognise their own physical and mental limitations,” he said. “Employers have a moral and legal duty of care. The key is for team leaders and more experienced colleagues to recognise that excessive behaviour and help people to manage themselves. It’s basic leadership.”
Roebuck added that although banks are high pressure, 24/7 organisations, recession and redundancies mean longer hours are common in most industries. “Excessive hours increase risk to the business and the individual,” he said. “They make no sense in terms of health, business or leadership.”
Extreme hours culture
Andre Spicer, professor of organisational behaviour at Cass Business School, said the story has “thrown light on the extreme hours culture” at banks.
“Extreme hours are less about getting things done and more about showing commitment,” he said. “There is no compelling business case for summer interns working such long hours. The real reasons are cultural. They show an intern is willing to push themselves beyond any reasonable limits at work.”
He added firms need to cut back on the time-wasting activities that take up much of the working day, leaving only nights to do ‘real’ work. “If large firms hope to be sustainable and attractive to employees, they need to tackle the extreme hours culture,” he warned.
Ben Lyons, co-director of Intern Aware, a charity campaigning against unpaid internships, said HR departments must pay special attention to interns in high-pressure environments.
Lyons told The Financial Times there needed to be a “change in culture and HR procedures where employees are assessed not on the total number of hours they are able to grind out, but on the quality of work they are able to produce”.