In retrospect, it was around Easter that John Hughes began to think something unusual was going on with his middle son, Thomas, a 29-year-old investment banker.
John’s former wife, Marypat, had arranged for brunch at the Yale Club, in Manhattan, with her three sons: Thomas, who worked at the Wall Street advisory firm Moelis & Company; John III, a young lawyer at Sullivan & Cromwell; and Joseph, an undergraduate at Fordham. The Yale Club, near Grand Central Terminal, was an easy enough trip on the train from her home in Westchester County, and an even easier one for her sons. But Thomas couldn’t make it. “There’s some big deal cooking at Moelis or whatever,” John recalls his son telling him. “He had to work through that whole stretch.”
Generally understanding of the long hours Wall Street banks expect of their youngest employees — after all, the pay was as high as the hours were long — Thomas’s parents could not fathom why he was not permitted a two-hour break on Easter Sunday. Ms. Hughes was miffed. “She just didn’t understand how this possibly could be on this particular day,” John says.
Less than two months later, on the morning of May 28, a Thursday, Mr. Hughes stepped onto the stone windowsill of his 24th-floor rental apartment on the southern tip of Manhattan and jumped to his death. He had been up all night, on an alcohol- and cocaine-filled binge, as best as can be determined by the police, whose report indicated that Mr. Hughes appeared to have been drinking heavily and that there were signs of cocaine use. The medical examiner has not yet released his toxicology report, but the police ruled the death a suicide.
Since Thomas did not leave a note, no one can be certain what he was thinking. John refuses to believe that his son committed suicide, despite the police report. He suspects that Thomas’s death was related to the stress he was under at work and that he used cocaine in a misguided effort to re-energize himself for the workday after a night of heavy drinking. And the combination of the alcohol and drugs made him crazy.
There is no simple answer to what leads a person to take his own life. Depression, drugs, mental illness, despair over circumstances one feels powerless to change — all of these can conspire. “When somebody commits suicide, it’s not because they were working too hard,” said one senior Wall Street executive. And there is no evidence that the incidence of suicide by young professionals on Wall Street is higher than in any other industry.
But Mr. Hughes died at a time when sensitivities about the pressures of Wall Street on young professionals are acute. Just a month earlier, Sarvshreshth Gupta, a 22-year-old first-year banking analyst at Goldman Sachs in San Francisco, committed suicide after a particularly stressful stretch at work. Around that time, another Goldman first-year analyst in the health care group who had worked 72 hours straight was hospitalized after having a seizure. (Goldman declined to comment about either episode.) Two years before, Moritz Erhardt, a 21-year-old investment banking intern at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, died after having an epileptic seizure while he was taking a shower to prepare to return to the office after working the previous 72 hours without sleeping.
Wall Street has always been a very demanding place to work, but these episodes, whether related to overwork or not, seem to have crystallized a larger need for change. In recent years, Wall Street has been searching to provide a better work-life balance for its junior bankers. These efforts have not been entirely successful. Even as Wall Street banks are losing top talent to Silicon Valley, hedge funds and private equity firms, long hours are simply part of the job. Wall Street’s culture still attracts hyperambitious men and women who are willing to do whatever it takes — pulling consecutive all-nighters or working through holiday weekends — to differentiate themselves and to meet their bosses’ weighty expectations.
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