Aug. 22, 2013 -- The death of a 21-year-old Bank of America Merrill Lynch intern has raised questions about the dangers of going too long without adequate sleep.
Moritz Erhardt was found unconscious in his dorm in London last week. An ambulance was called, and Erhardt was pronounced dead at the scene. The 21-year-old German student was finishing his summer internship at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, a competitive seven-week program in which interns often work overtime during their work placement, the bank confirmed.
A spokesperson for the London Metropolitan police said the death had been ruled "unsuspicious," and that the medical examiner was expected to release its findings later this week.
According to the U.K's Independent, an unidentified intern, who lived in the same building as Erhardt, said the German intern had been working through the night during the last few weeks of the internship.
"He apparently pulled eight all-nighters in two weeks. They get you working crazy hours, and maybe it was just too much for him in the end," the intern told The Independent.
Another intern in the program told the newspaper that long hours were expected, since they were all competing for jobs that paid well.
"We all work long hours, but the guys working regularly until 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. are those in investment banking," said the intern. "People working in markets will have to be in at 6 a.m. but not stay as late, so what time you can leave the office depends on your division."
On the financial blog Wallstreetoasis.com one commenter wrote that Erhardt had pulled three all-nighters in a row before he was found unconscious.
John McIvor, a spokesman for Bank of America Merrill Lynch, said the company was "shocked and saddened" by Erhardt's death.
"He was popular amongst his peers and was a highly diligent intern at our company with a promising future," McIvor said in a statement. "Our first thoughts are with his family, and we send our condolences to them at this difficult time."
The company had no comment on the unsubstantiated reports that Erhardt had been working multiple nights before he died.
"The thing to reiterate right now, nobody knows what happened and until that is established, I think any conclusion is premature," said McIvor.
According to experts, working high-pressure jobs with extraordinarily long hours can produce immediate and worrisome health problems.
In the past decade the medical profession, another field in which interns or newly minted doctors face long hours, has started to regulate work schedules. In 2003, medical residents were no longer allowed to work more than 80 hours per week, and in 2011, first-year medical residents could not work shifts that exceeded 16 hours.
"There's research that if someone stays up for 20 to 24 hours, they can be as [impaired] as someone with .01 blood alcohol level," said Dr. Charles Bae at the Cleveland Clinic Sleep Disorders Center.
Bae also pointed out that people who haven't slept may believe they aren't as impaired as they are, similar to a drunken person believing he or she can drive home safely.
"The body needs downtime to heal and on the cellular level, [the body] needs to repair," said Bae.
Without enough sleep people can start to immediately suffer physiological effects, including changes to their insulin levels, testosterone and immune systems.
Sleep Deprivation and Weight Loss Dr. Charles Czeisler, the director of the Division of Sleep Medicine at the Harvard Medical School, said sleep is a "basic biological need.
"Ultimately sleep is necessary for life," said Czeisler. "Animals that are deprived of sleep die within about three weeks."
In addition to sleep deprivation, Czeisler said excessive stimulant use has also been linked to significant health problems.
"[Excessive] caffeine does have side effects, including cardiac arrhythmia," said Czeisler. "People going to emergency rooms as result of too much caffeine is rising dramatically."
While the cause of Erhardt's death has yet to be determined, Czeisler said certain industries, such as finance or medicine that put pressure on junior members to work long nights, risk putting their workers' health in jeopardy.
"If it's true that he was pressured to work for 72 hours straight, it's high time the financial service industry develops a plan to avoid this [kind of] tragedy," said Czeisler.