Sick and tired of money

Fast cars, penthouse apartments and glittering parties might well be some of the benefits of life as an investment banker, but a look behind the scenes reveals how many financial wizards ruin their health in the pursuit of riches.

The image of the men and women who work on Wall Street and in financial centres such as London, Paris, even Sydney, is well known. In addition to cars, apartments and parties, their high bonuses help them afford perfectly tailored suits and even more perfect hairstyles. At least that is the cliche played out in books and movies.

An extensive study by a German-born woman who started her career working as a banker reveals some less appealing features of the profession. The truth is the global financial elite typically work from early in the morning until late at night, hardly ever have free weekends, let alone time to do more than shovel down their meals.

Ultimately, the constant pressure to achieve success takes a toll on their health.

After a few years on the job many investment bankers suffer sleep disorders or allergies, lapse into alcoholism or can function only by taking drugs, according to Alexandra Michel, a former banker who spent three years working on Wall Street before putting the brakes on that career path. She now lectures at the University of Southern California and she recently published her study on the work and life of people on Wall Street.

"I was a young banker working 80 or sometimes even 100 hours a week," said Michel, who worked with Goldman Sachs on Wall Street in the mergers and acquisitions department. She later was assigned by the company to study the work habits of her colleagues before she finally ended up in research.

"My husband and I hardly ever saw each other," she said, recalling her three years in investment banking. "I simply wasn't able to predict when I would get out of the office."

The study she has published is one of the most intimate looks into the world of high finance ever produced and interest in it is huge.

Michel currently is on a media tour in the United States, doing numerous television and newspaper interviews. The study has confirmed the experiences of many people in the investment banking field, although hardly any banker is willing to publicly comment on it.

"Work changes a person - even more so when you slog away at it for 100 hours a week," said Michel. Over a period of nine years she accompanied more than two dozen bankers with the permission of their employers. "I moved into empty cubicles and observed the people around me," she said. Then she conducted quarterly interviews.

"In the first three years the bankers worked their tails off. When they were young their bodies could take it," said Michel.

"People would boast about not having slept for two nights. A spot of blood on their shirt proved that they didn't make it home and had to shave in the office restroom."

Michel observed that after four years the health of the bankers went into a steep decline.

"Many suffered breakdowns, got sick or developed nervous ticks such as nose picking or nail biting. I heard from one man who held his meetings lying on the conference table because his back pain was so bad," said Michel.

Despite all the health issues, 60 per cent of bankers continue on the same course, according to the study. The remaining 40 per cent listen to their bodies and pull back from work because they simply can't do it any longer, Michel said.

Ironically, these are the ones who end up being the most valuable employees at the bank.

"They are more at ease and therefore more creative and possess keen judgment."

But why don't bankers recognise that their jobs are destroying their health and livelihood?

"A bank is like a social cocoon," said Michel. Amenities such as free food and fitness studios in the building keep the employees in the office. The borders between work and home blur.

The conveniences make it easy for bankers to stay at work, although family and friends are neglected.

"I know of an Indian whose family flew in for a day to have lunch with him and he had no time because he had to work," said Michel.

Most investment bankers can't handle the stress after age 35. Then they look for a job with a financial investment company or in politics or they withdraw completely from the industry.

"The bankers want to earn enough money to fulfil their dreams," said Michel.

"But the truth is after spending all those years in the bank they no longer know what to do with their free time."