Is your banking career ruining your body and mind?

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Health and banking careers

It’s December, the time of year when even the stoutest constitutions and youngest revellers are likely to spend a morning or two wondering about the long term health consequences of the banker lifestyle.  And looking at the available research, the news is not great.

There are several ways in which a career in investment banking can seriously damage your health.

Banking will give you opportunities to damage yourself

The combination of youth, significant disposable income, stress and a feeling that you’ve earned a bit of fun go together to fuel unhealthy lifestyle habits in bankers just as they do in pop stars.  The stereotypical drug of finance is of course cocaine, but lifestyle coaches and wellness professionals working with the industry also see plenty of misuse of prescription drugs (particularly sleeping pills and anxiety medication). And in many ways, according to longevity specialist Tim Bean, legal drugs like alcohol and caffeine can be more damaging, simply because their overuse is more ubiquitous and easier to sustain over a the long term.

Alexandra Michel, a former Goldman Sachs banker who is now a business school professor at Wharton, documented an entire “banking body-abuse cycle” when she surveyed twenty-four entry level investment bankers, following them as their careers developed.  Every single one of them developed a stress-related physical or emotional disorder at some point.  It starts in your first year, with “abuse”, sleep deprivation and working through illness.  By the fourth year, bankers tend to move into “breakdown” when the body starts fighting back. They develop tics and bad habits like nose-picking or nail-biting, and start to shop and over-consume to manage their stress.  If you make it through this stage, a “care and attention” phase seems to begin after six years into the career, although this is often delayed in bankers who move jobs a lot; it seems like you need to be socialized into ways of looking after yourself.

Banking will give other people opportunities to overwork you.

One of the biggest surveys ever done on the effects of workplace stress (the “Whitehall Study” carried out for the British civil service) collected data from 10,000 employees and concluded that yes, stress kills. Employees, particularly those low down in the hierarchy, who reported feelings of being under pressure to perform, and who did not feel in control of their workload, had measurably worse health outcomes; it’s almost as bad for you as smoking.  Even this year, there have been so many cases of cardiac symptoms in junior bankers in their 20s and 30s that doctors have been speaking out about the phenomenon.  Jeffrey Pfeffer’s book on white collar stress, “Dying for a Paycheck”, highlights tragic cases like that of Moritz Erhardt, the Merrill Lynch intern who died after an epileptic fit at the end of a 72-hour marathon stint. Erhardt's death prompted several banks to bring in new rules on the treatment of junior staff, but today's juniors say they're not always observed.  Pfeffer claims that “the person you report to at work is as important to your health as your family doctor”.

You are likely to develop habits that will damage your health in the long term

Banks tend to attract and recruit “insecure overachievers”.  These are people who, for whatever deep seated psychological reason, are easily motivated by fear of slipping behind, and who therefore don’t need to be forced to work long hours; they will do it all on their own.  Professor Laura Empsom of Cass Business School looked at many cases of senior employees who had long since established and cemented self-destructive behaviour patterns, and who were unable to switch off the intensity even after reaching the top of the tree.  There has always been a culture of putting the client first in the investment banking industry, but in some people this stops being a metaphor for working diligently, and starts turning into a compulsion that leads people to put their clients’ financial needs ahead of their own lives.

It’s probably this sort of personality-type that finds it so difficult to make use of the help that’s available; they’re afraid that any sign of weakness will put them at a disadvantage in the competitive hierarchy, and they have a weak sense of self that needs their status in the hierachy to hold it up. It’s a personality type that’s often found at elite universities and even has a name – the author William Deresciewicz calls elite students “excellent sheep”.  He says that family pressure while growing up can build individuals who are only capable of valuing themselves in terms of institutional measures of success; social praise becomes a kind of addiction that can lead to behaviour almost as destructive as more hedonistic methods of pulling your life apart.

So, should you get out, to save your health?  Well, not necessarily.  Investment banking isn’t the only stressful job in the world, and often, people who leave the industry to pursue fulfillment find that they’ve carried their unhealthy habits with them. Alexandra Michel found this to be the case when she caught up with her case studies later on in their careers. The guy who said to her that “I have made a comfortable life for myself here. There is hardly a day when I have to be in the office later than 11pm,” looks like he hasn’t shaken off the warped perception of normality.

Taking control is the first step

What you really need to do is to take control of your career.  Not only is a sense of lack of control one of the most crucial stress factors that surveys have found to drive health-destroying stress, but if you’re in control, then you can be the one to make decisions about sleep and travel, bearing your own health in mind.  But how do you get to that position?  And once you’ve reached it, how do you get your clients to buy in, and how do you stop worrying that your competition will eat your leisurely lunch? How many of us are so lucky? Not one in ten thousand.

Realistically, working in a bank is not a healthy career. You’re unlikely to get black lung or industrial deafness, but it’s rare to spend a long time in banking without at least some long term consequences.  Perhaps the best thing to do is accept that and concentrate on the things you can control, like diet and exercise. And for heaven’s sake, keep the recreational substances to a manageable level.

Merry Christmas!

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