It’s holiday season, the time of year when there's a moment to reflect upon the long term health consequences of the banker lifestyle. While finance professionals today are healthier than yesterday, the profession still comes with plenty of health warnings.
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.
Stimulant addictions should not be your only worry though. The real danger is an addiction to overwork itself. 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. And it goes on.
Michel found that by the fourth year a lot of young bankers she studied were in physical breakdown. They developed tics and bad habits like nose-picking or nail-biting. And they over-shopped and over-consumed to manage their stress. Many dropped out. Those who made it through this event horizon were forced to start looking after themselves around six years in.
The stress of being out of control
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.
The study found that mployees, 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 than those who were in control. Being out of control and stressed at work is almost as bad for you as smoking.
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”.
Understand your motivations
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.
Insecure overachievers find it 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.
This personality type that’s often found at elite universities and even has a name – the author and Yale professor William Deresciewicz calls elite students “excellent sheep”. Deresciewicz 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.
Get a grip
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. The best thing to do is accept that and concentrate on the things you can control, like diet and exercise. And, keep the recreational substances at bay. Happy holidays!
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