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USC study shows the price Wall Streeters pay for success

February 15, 2012|By Walter Hamilton
  • Many Wall Street investment bankers are willing to work grueling hours. But the unrelentingly schedule  up to 120 hours a week in some cases  often results in severe physical and emotional maladies, a study finds.
Many Wall Street investment bankers are willing to work grueling hours.… (Stan Honda / Getty Images )

A critic might say that Wall Street has made the rest of the country sick.

Now comes a study showing that financial-industry masters of the universe are making themselves sick.

The study by USC business professor Alexandra Michel found that Wall Street’s unrelentingly grueling work schedule – up to 120 hours a week in some cases – often results in severe physical and emotional maladies. A partial list: heart problems, alcoholism, prescription-drug abuse, insomnia, depression, eating disorders, back pain and weight gain.

Some bankers came away with “embarrassing tics, such as nail biting, nose picking or hair twirling,” according to the study. To relieve the stress, some people “shopped, partied and consumed pornography.”

The results of the study aren’t necessarily surprising. Perhaps Gordon Gekko’s signature line should have been: “Greed, for lack of a better word, kills.”

But thanks to the personal details Michel uncovers and dozens of quotes from bankers themselves, the study captures the zeitgeist of Wall Street in dramatic and often disturbing tones. The same mindset that drew these people to Wall Street in the first place – sacrifice at all costs in pursuit of free-flowing financial reward – exacts a harsh price as the stress and long hours add up.

Michel tracked young bankers at two unnamed companies over a decade, starting from when they joined their firms in their late 20s. For the first two years, Michel shadowed many of the associates for days on end, observing their Type-A lives up close. She did scores of follow-up interviews to track how the workers fared over the years.

In their first three years, the recruits virtually live in their offices and give little consideration to the potential effect on their health.

‘‘For the next few years, work has priority,” Michel quotes one banker as saying. “I’ll worry about my health then.’’ No one worried about the risk of irreversible damage. ‘‘I am willing to kill myself at work because this is an opportunity that comes along only once in life,” a second banker said.

But by the fourth year, people’s bodies started to give way, and bankers fought with themselves to keep up their earlier pace. Eventually, some Wall Streeters came to resent the cost of success but felt unable to change their lives. The study doesn’t speculate, but the notion of forfeiting their juicy salaries and outwardly glamorous lifestyles probably played a powerful role.

‘‘It feels like my body is choking off all life force,’’ one person told Michel. When asked why, the banker replied, ‘‘Who cares? There is nothing I can do but plow through work.’’

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