Stress in the financial sector is accepted as part of the job, but when this develops into anxiety and depression, it becomes a stigma that has the potential to destroy your career. No bank would admit to discriminating against those with mental illness, but bankers who have been forced to leave their jobs because of depression have struggled to get back in again.
Most banks have policies that support existing staff if they become mentally ill, but a history of depression is something new employers struggle to overlook, believes one former investment banking managing director.
“I left my former employer because of mental health issues, but I have not been able to find work since,” he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “I have had offers extended, but then rescinded. I believe this is as a direct consequence of them finding out about my depression. It’s a cruel world.”
Joe Nickel had been working in wealth management and as a stock broker for the best part of ten years when, in 2008, he began to feel increasingly stressed. Soon, he was leaving his desk to cry in the toilets (or to avoid doing so in front of colleagues). Then, after a panic attack on the platform left him unable to board the train to work, he realised it was something more serious. He was eventually signed off work with anxiety and depression for three months, but never went back.
“The finance sector can have a robust, assertive and sometimes confrontational culture. People are given workloads that would be deemed unfeasible in other industries, and tolerate this largely because they receive a big salary,” he said. “My immediate boss was very supportive of my situation, but I suspected that after a couple of months of illness they wouldn’t want me back. In a high performance culture, any perception of weakness is viewed with suspicion.”
A growing problem
The consequences of failing to acknowledge depression can be tragic. Nickel said he was “weeks away” from ending his life before he sought help. Last October, Michael Burdin, who worked in FX at Bank of America Merrill Lynch in London threw himself in front of a train after losing his job, while Nico Lambrechts, an investment manager at Investec, took his own life by jumping from seventh-floor restaurant Coq D’Argent in the City. This followed stress-related problems at work.
Psychology clinics in Wall Street and the City are bulging with new patients, around half of which come with anxiety or depression-related conditions, according to Dr Michael Sinclair, managing director of the City Psychology Group.
“People who come to see me are keen to keep their condition confidential. The fear of being labelled as having depression, or having it going on record, is something they feel, in a highly competitive environment, will affect their employment opportunities in the future,” he said.
“There’s a huge stigma attached to mental health issues in the financial sector,” said Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology at Lancaster University Management School and founder of Robertson Cooper, which works with investment banks on employee mental health. “It’s illegal for banks to discriminate against people for having depression, but often they find ways to manage them out. If somebody has a breakdown, I would say it’s still very difficult for them to get back in.”
Despite efforts to soften their image, at least publicly, banks maintain a reputation for being macho and tough places to work. A study published in the Social Psychology and Personality Science journal earlier this year said that even the ‘average investment banker face’ was “dominant, masculine and aggressive”. This is at odds with the realities of the job – two separate pieces of research in the past 12 months have highlighted working investment banking as being damaging to your mental health.
“I felt deeply ashamed and weak because of my condition, and this is down to the macho culture in banking,” said Nickel. “It’s a cliché, but if I was off work for a physical condition I’d have received a lot of messages of support from my colleagues, but I heard nothing from them. I understand why, though – I had the same attitude before my illness.”
In a 2009 study by Time to Change, a programme run by Mind and Rethink Mental Illness aimed at ending discrimination, banking was cited as the worst industry for discriminating against people with a history of mental illness. Nearly 50% of respondents in the sector said they would be reluctant to hire someone with a mental illness, and one banker claimed to have undertaken 150 interviews before finding a new job.
The tactic of most banks is to try and ensure that stress never escalates into depression or anxiety. Most now carry out ‘well-being’ audits of their staff to assess anyone is in danger of developing a mental illness, said Cooper, or ‘resilience training’ to try and instil traits to enable employees to handle stress better.
Nonetheless, Sinclair believes that the only way to remove the stigma related to depression is to talk more openly about it, in a positive manner.
“When bankers talk about depression, they assume it will ring some alarm bells with a new employer, and show weakness,” he said. “It’s much better to explain the circumstances of how your illness came about, what you learned from it and how, ultimately, it’s made you a stronger and more well-rounded person.”
“The reality is banking is a high risk sector for stress and anxiety disorders, and it’s only by acknowledging this that we begin to address it,” said Cooper.