Toiling away without sleep is not normal

Knowing when to stop work, having work-life balance are key to success


THE tragic story of a 21-year-old student who died towards the end of his summer internship last year has prompted major banks to re-examine their working conditions.

One of the first to act was Bank of America Merrill Lynch, where intern Moritz Erhardt died after working 72 hours straight at its investment division in London.

The bank has tightened up procedures, including making sure days off are taken and better supervision of staff is in place.

Morgan Stanley and JPMorgan Chase are reported to be working on similar measures while Deutsche Bank and Citigroup rolled out new guidelines last month.

Citi Singapore human resources head Evangeline Chua says: "The new guidelines... recognise the importance of work-life balance and encourage efficiency and productivity among our colleagues."

All investment banking analysts and associates at Citi are now required to take all of their annual vacation time and told not to log on remotely to work unless there are critical issues.

While interns at Citi do not get paid annual leave, Ms Chua says they can apply for unpaid leave during their internship. "When they are on leave, Citi does not expect them to work," she adds.

Staff at OCBC Bank can choose to go home an hour earlier on Fridays under the My Flexi Hour scheme introduced last year.

The lights at DBS Bank automatically go off at 7pm from Monday to Thursday and at 5pm on Friday - telling employees that it is time to leave work. Since 2011, office hours also end at 5pm on Friday.

Banks The Straits Times spoke to also say that staff are expected to manage their own schedules, alongside guidelines for working hours.

ICE Professionals Asia, which focuses on recruiting fresh graduates and young professionals, believes the tough job market since the 2008 financial crisis has created a hunger to secure a job at any cost, especially in professional services.

The Financial Times has noted that investment banking, for example, sees that "the best traders, advisers, dealmakers and other specialists are still capable of earning seven-figure packages". Financial services firms usually reward long working hours with big bonuses, but the FT recently reported that this move is affected by lower profits, so working conditions are being relooked.

Robert Half Singapore director Stella Tang says the finance and accounting industry involves longer hours, especially at the end of the financial year, when deadlines must be met.

ICE Professionals Asia chief executive Nuwanthie Samarakone says: "The attitudes and beliefs of the line managers have to change, which is a major cultural shift that I am not sure the big banks are ready for in a tight economy."

She says bankers still think - "In my day we worked every hour we had and why can't they follow that?"

An investment banking analyst who declined to be named says he generally starts at 9am and ends around 10pm.

He knows of some who work until 3am every day while others get to go home at 7pm. He says it depends on what team you are on.

The new guidelines come with good intentions, and could be a way for banks to retain their junior talent, he says, instead of seeing them burn out and leave the bank in two to three years.

However, there is no way of forcing people to go home at a certain time or making sure they are not slogging away at home.

He adds: "Whenever you institutionalise such rules, people will follow but whether it's according to the book is another thing. But I think they'll have practical effects."

Human resource professionals say young employees and firms all have a part to play.

Alert management if you are burnt out, and lodge a complaint with the Ministry of Manpower if your boss expects you to go without sleep for work and threatens to sack you if you don't comply, says Ms Tang. This prevents bad bosses from doing the same to another young employee.

She adds that "it makes no sense to let your employees work days without sleep".

"Working long days is one thing, but going without sleep is another. Sleep deprivation leads to errors, and errors cost time and money to fix."

Firms are also dealing with this issue in new ways in order to retain talent.

ICE Professionals Asia director Will Jodrell says: "From the regions we operate in, we are constantly seeing that banks, hedge funds, private equity groups and technology companies are competing for the brightest and best junior talent.

"Therefore, how does a company or industry differentiate itself?"

He cites technology firms offering more time off work and benefits such as being allowed to wear casual clothes, play pool at work or even bring pets to the office.

OCBC also offers a career break scheme, where employees with at least five years of service can take three consecutive months of unpaid sabbatical leave. Last year, 57 employees signed up for the scheme.

They can take up to a maximum of two career breaks during their time of employment. OCBC human resource planning head Jacinta Low says: "Our work-life satisfaction score has improved over the years and from 2012 to 2013, it went up by 4 per cent."

Eventually, employees should consider resigning if nothing can be improved, says Ms Tang, adding that "going three days without sleep is never normal".

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