If you work in financial services, you’ve likely spent many a night kept up over the stresses of the job. The working hours, the responsibilities, the external pressures to deliver consistent compelling results – they all add up. But who has it worse?
We asked a host of recruiters, industry experts and actual employees in each field for their verdicts. Below are the composite results.
1. Investment Banker (M&A or capital markets professional)
Jobs in the investment banking division (IBD) were the runaway choice for the most stressful job on Wall Street and in all of financial services, finishing in the top three of every ballot. It wasn’t even close. The main reason is that investment bankers are confronted with the two main triggers for career stress: the difficulty of the work coupled with the sheer amount of it, particularly for analysts and associates and despite banks’ attempts to mitigate the strain.
The life of a junior banker is one of the last forms of indentured servitude, said Roy Cohen, a career coach and author of The Wall Street Professional’s Survival Guide. “It is a grueling survival of the fittest existence defined by all-nighters, no time to eat well or to exercise, and compensation that has remained flat for a number of years.”
One MD says M&A careers remain stressful throughout, but that the nature of the stress changes. “Juniors are crushed by work out of their control. Seniors are whipsawed by clients’ unreasonable demands,” he says. “Juniors have no responsibility for revenues, though, whereas MDs do. That is huge, constant pressure. MDs have (lots) more money and somewhat more life control, but much high burnout rate and obligations. Juniors rarely fired; MDs are fired all the time.”
And if you decide not to become an MD to escape this pressure? “If you don’t get promoted to MD eventually, you’re fired,” he says. “You can’t stay a hardworking irresponsible junior forever.”
Traders may not work quite the crazy hours of investment bankers, but they have a sharper, more acute level of stress. “Trader stress is in real time and can happen instantaneously,” said Sal Khan, managing director at New York City recruitment firm Dynamics Associates.
Trading coach Steven Goldstein described the insidious nature of stress in trading jobs: “When you work in trading, there’s so much that’s outside your control and that can be hard to deal with. You’re sitting there every day and sometimes the markets are in your favor and sometimes they aren’t. People start to question whether they really want that.”
The workday starts very early but, for some, it ends on the early side, at least the active, ulcer-inducing part of the job.
3. Risk management & compliance
Pre-crisis, risk and compliance professionals likely had full heads of hair and fingernails void of chew marks. Now, with banking scandals continuing to make headlines, risk and compliance pros find themselves in a unique pressure cooker: increased responsibility and visibility along with targets on their backs, with colleagues often taking aim.
Sitting in a non-revenue generating seats, risk and compliance staffers are often viewed as the enemy by colleagues who are desperate to get a transaction approved, said Cohen. Market risk and credit risk management roles are particularly stressful, said Khan.
It’s not just the stress. It can also be the feeling of disempowerment. “You’re there to escalate issues, but when you do, nothing is done about them. Compliance is a soulless job. You end up keeping your head down, collecting your money and destroying your principles,” one compliance professional told us.
4. Wealth manager/private banker
Finishing near the top on some surveys and further down on others, wealth managers and financial advisors deal with one particular vehicle for stress: they eat only what they kill. Wealth managers get fired nearly as often as they get hired. One WM told us that, after only five years, he was the remaining member of his 30-person recruiting class. The rest had left the business altogether to his knowledge.
It’s a sales job, and your target is often friends and family, further adding to the pressure. You start with a barely livable wage, typically a draw, and you need to sell to remain employed.
“People seem to think that if you’re a private banker you sit on a pile of money and that keeps the money coming in,” says one private banker. “They’re 100% wrong. -You have to build a book, once you can get together a book in excess of €100m, you can rest easier.”
And if you don’t have a book of assets worth €100m? “It’s a job where you try to protect the assets you have from other preying bankers and run around preying on the assets of other bankers,” he adds. When this is the case, he says private banking can be a harsh career choice: “By comparison, the so-called cut throat world of investment banking is like sitting on an extra fluffy towel on a warm beach while toasting marsh mellows and singing Kumbaya.”
The plus? If you can put together a competitive book of business, other firms will try to lure you with big signing bonuses to switch firms. You just need to have the confidence that your clients will come with, or those bonuses turn into what they really are: loans that may not be forgiven.
5. Institutional sales
Any role that focuses on sales causes stress. Couple this with the fact that the job security and the ceiling on salary aren’t what they used to be, and institutional sales can be a grind. “As technology automates much of the function, there is simply less need for a human interface,” said Cohen.
6. Management consulting
Is management consulting really a stressful career? Yes, if you’re working somewhere like McKinsey & Co. or BCG and you don’t like travel (Bain & Co. has a reputation for staffing people closer to their home office). Management consultants typically travel a lot. And not just overnight trips. Employees can be stationed at a client site for weeks and even months. A consultant who works at one of the Big Four accounting firms told us that, for one assignment, he travelled from his home in Florida to a hedge fund client in Connecticut every week for nearly three months, flying back home each weekend to be with his family.
When Harvard Business School professors researched working conditions at leading strategy consulting firms in 2013, they found people who claimed to work 15 hour days and to sleep less than six hours a night. “There’s a correlation between success and the willingness to just put everything else aside and do a ton of work,” said one.
Like banks, consulting firms have implemented programs to mitigate work stress. One junior consultant who’s worked in banking told us consulting jobs are better: the hours are shorter and the work is more varied and creative. Travel is the real key.
7. Long-only fund manager
In theory, fund management isn’t that much of a stressful career. Long-only managers invest for the long term and have time to ponder their decisions.
In reality, it’s not that easy.
One NYC long only manager says working on the buy-side is fine, as long as you’re right. “If you’re right in your investments, the buy-side is an easier place to work.” If you’re wrong in your investments, he says the buy-side is just as stressful as the sell-side.
Even so, this is better than working in an investment bank: “You can be right all day long on the sell-side, you still have to hustle your a** off,” Osprey points out.
Like risk and compliance, tech pros get yelled at – a lot. “They take plenty of blame, even when things are out of their hands, and they constantly have to re-educate themselves and take courses,” said Lisa Mogilner, a recruiter at Dynamics Associates.
Finishing last on every ballot, accounting is “virtually stress-free as long as you like routine and are willing to work long hours on a seasonal basis,” said Cohen.
However, Tom Stoddart, director at London-based recruiters Eximius Finance, said that accounting roles in banks have become more pressured in recent years. “As regulators focus more heavily on capital requirements, the role of the accountant has become more important.”
Accounting jobs in product control can be stressful simply because they require interaction with traders on a daily basis, says Stoddart. Similarly, management and regulatory reporting roles can be stressful as deadlines come near. The least stressful accounting jobs in banks are those which involve forecasting and budgeting, suggests Stoddart: “These are still business critical, but they’re also more qualitative and not subject to the pressure of an external review.”
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