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As Burnout Culture Weighs Down Wall Street, Young Bankers Are Rethinking Their Career

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The stories about Wall Street's work-till-you-drop culture are infamous. There's the hours. Young bankers at Goldman Sachs recently complained of abuse, citing the fact that they're expected to work up to 120 hours a week. Then there's a project manager whose first thought during a heart attack was, how inconvenient; I have a meeting with my manager. He wrote a LinkedIn post that went viral. Well, some are now rethinking this culture and all the punishing expectations that come with it. NPR's David Gura has more.

DAVID GURA, BYLINE: Right out of college, Anita Ramaswamy (ph) started a dream job at a big bank on Wall Street. Competition for an entry-level position is fierce because of the astronomical pay and prestige.

ANITA RAMASWAMY: You know, they really entice you with a lot of perks as an intern. I remember getting, like, front-row tickets to a Yankees game. I remember getting on a yacht cruise.

GURA: But it didn't take long for her to realize that her job was not about boat rides and baseball games. Ramaswamy was making lots of money, but she had no time to spend it. When she did go out with friends, she was never far from her phone, taking calls and answering emails.

RAMASWAMY: What was always emphasized was, look; this is a client-facing business, and we serve our clients. Therefore, we need to drop everything any time they ask us something.

GURA: That expectation got even worse during the pandemic. She moved to a different firm. And in December, she began to despair.

RAMASWAMY: It was a Friday night. And I was sitting at home, and I worked until midnight that night.

GURA: She was living with her parents again in Arizona, thousands of miles away from Wall Street. And that Friday was her birthday.

RAMASWAMY: I just remember hitting this point of absolute meltdown. Like, there was nothing going through my head except for, I can't do this anymore. I want to have a life. I want to be a real person. I want to be able to spend time with my family. I want to be able to take time for myself. And I didn't even have time to think about it.

GURA: Ramaswamy felt alone, but she wasn't. At Goldman Sachs, 13 analysts put together a presentation that was leaked and got a lot of attention. They told their bosses they were working until 3 in the morning. My body physically hurts all the time, one banker wrote, and mentally, I'm in a really dark place. In response, the CEO of Goldman Sachs acknowledged they deserve a break. They shouldn't have to work on Saturdays. There was burnout in banking before, but the pandemic has made it worse. Cary Friedman is the head of HR at the financial firm Jefferies.

CARY FRIEDMAN: When you have nowhere to go, you end up working a whole lot more than maybe you needed to, but there was really nothing else to do, which is very dangerous.

GURA: Among the dangers, he says, are anxiety and depression brought on by exhaustion and isolation. Many of his firm's younger employees moved home or they lived alone in cities that were locked down.

FRIEDMAN: And it's, wait; I'm not going anywhere. I might as well keep working, you know? And basically, I think people were on call or felt like they had to be on call 24 hours a day.

GURA: Some banks have recognized burnout is an institutional problem, and many firms say to address it, they're going to pay even more. But Robert Wolf says that's not the answer. He was the chairman and CEO of UBS Americas.

ROBERT WOLF: Happiness means a lot right now.

GURA: Banks are competing for talent with tech, and there's a push to change company culture.

WOLF: I never understood, even when I was running UBS, why, literally, we had to be an environment where you would be working associates 24/7, looking for that 25th hour.

GURA: And to some extent, that's just the way it's been. Wolf started out at Salomon Brothers in the 1980s, and at that time, plenty of young bankers celebrated competition and greed.

WOLF: It was a bit of the Wild West.

GURA: Back then, Wolf says, it was work hard, play hard. But that's given way to what's now work hard, work hard. What hasn't changed is what attracts college students to a career that can be crushing.

WOLF: I just graduated college. I can't believe I'm at one of the best firms. This is what was my goal. And now my goal was in the next few years to make a lot of money.

GURA: Money also motivated Anita Ramaswamy. She wanted financial independence. But beyond that...

RAMASWAMY: You don't know what else is out there because you haven't had time to try it. Therefore, you think that what you're doing is just as good as it's ever going to get.

GURA: The pandemic gave her new perspective. It's one thing to work 18-hour days side by side with colleagues who are also working 18-hour days. But when you're doing that alone in your childhood bedroom - after her birthday, Ramaswamy talked to her parents. They were sad they hadn't seen much of her, even though she'd been back home for weeks. A few days later, she quit.

David Gura, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF RATATAT'S "BUSTELO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.