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Here’s what a small bonus does to your mental health

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If you get a tiny bonus, then there's a good way and a bad way to react.

Long working hours may be the largest stressor for bankers, but getting a small bonus can also affect your mental health, especially if you live in an expensive city like New York.

Here’s how a small bonus can affect your well-being.

Counterfactual comparisons

As a result of comparing their own bonus to what they think others are receiving, Wall Street professionals will feel disappointed and then angry, according to Richard Peterson, a psychiatrist and the CEO of consultancy MarketPsych. “If management doesn’t take steps to keep their morale up, the employee’s performance will suffer and they will start searching for greener pastures.”

Failure to communicate

Getting a disappointing bonus can be tied to a miscommunication regarding performance expectations. “If the employee doesn’t know what the breakdown of the performance evaluation is, then it can feel like the employer is applying favoritism,” says Maya Rose Hormadaly, a career coach and the founder of JLegacies. “This can trigger a sense of incompetence and even a sibling rivalry-like phenomenon with co-workers.”

Bonus size > liking what you do

“It’s all about, ‘Did I get what I thought I was entitled to as a bonus compared to the guy down the hall?’” says Anne Ziff, an assistant clinical professor at Mount Sinai Medical Center. “They are perhaps placing a lot more weight on the bonus reward than on the pleasures and the challenges and the excitement of the work itself, and if that’s where you are and who you are, consider finding another field.”

Alpha dog

“When an employee has become accustomed to a certain lifestyle, there is an internal and external expectation of them to maintain or surpass that lifestyle,” Hormadaly says. “There is an immense amount of pressure to live at those standards regardless of changing circumstances; it serves as validation for their social status.

“A change in that status can put their reputation at risk; it insinuates that they have been rejected from the game,” she says. “In a fast-paced and ego-driven environment such as finance, rejection can be interpreted as failure. And failure at a workplace that occupies your life for 20 hours of your day can feel like an all-encompassing disappointment.”

Tying self-worth to bonus size 

“So long as the employee’s self-worth is based on external validation from the workplace, they will be at the mercy of the ebbs and flows of the business and the people who are in power,” Hormadaly says. “Tell yourself, ‘I am not my bonus; I am many other things.’

“A small bonus may be devastating on a personal level, but it does not equate to your career identity,” she says.

Prioritizing work and earnings over family

“The spouse and the children [of a high-producing finance professional] usually carp about the hours – ‘Where are you? Why aren’t you coming home tonight?’” Ziff says. “And when they do come home it’s phone calls, nose in the computer or checking emails on your phone at the dinner table, which either leads to divorce or being miserable and you grit your teeth and keep going for the sake of the children.

“In this situation, you are not an asset to the family except for your paycheck – even emotionally rigid, narrow people do not find that flattering, and they shouldn’t,” she says. “Single people have an easier time with the long hours except that it’s really hard to date.”

Right-size your expectations

Some bankers need a big bonus every year to keep up that lavish lifestyle. Some feel entitled to a big bonus no matter what the reality of their own and their firm’s situation is. “I once had a portfolio manager client stressed that his yearly performance would lead to a low bonus, and his stress about it was itself impairing his performance,” Peterson says. “I asked how much money he felt he needed to be happy, and he responded ‘$150 million.’

“The PM was unrealistic and would have been stressed regardless of his bonus – he was unlikely to earn $150 million anytime soon,” he says. “So the solution in coaching was to first help him get grounded, in part by cutting his expenses, so he could make better decisions.”


Have a confidential story, tip or comment you’d like to share? Contact: dbutcher@efinancialcareers.com
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