How banking can ruin your body and mind

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After several years on the desk

Après quelques années devant son écran (Photo credit: RichardAlan)

A week and a half into the New Year and you may be feeling inclined to forego abstinence in favour of indulgence as normality reasserts itself. For some, indulgence might mean illicit substances and alcohol, for others it will simply mean too much caffeine and too many late nights in the office. Either way, be warned.

Various studies and various anti-stress gurus identify investment banking as one of the most stressful careers there is. The industry extracts a harsh toll, both mentally and physically. "51% of men working in the City and aged over 40 suffer from erectile dysfunction (ED)," says Tim Bean, a self-described 'executive longevity specialist' and celebrity trainer who has worked with bankers at Lloyds and elsewhere. Where does this stat come from? "It's widely reported," suggests Bean, "And you can tell by the body language in a room full of bankers whenever I mention it."

Male bankers drink too much coffee and too much alcohol, says Bean. Both substances suppress the production of testosterone and can cause ED, he claims. Bankers who drink too much caffeine can develop 'moobs', Bean cautions. "Caffeine robs men of their alpha maleness," he says. "Men then get fatter, and fat produces its own estrogen; it's a self-perpetuating cycle."

For some bankers, caffeine addiction is the least of their problems. Don Serratt, a former banker and founder of the Lifeworks Community, a rehabilitation centre for addictions, says there's always a peak in people asking him for help in the New Year. Serratt says he sees a lot of bankers, most of them aged between 25 and 45. "They primarily come in for cocaine addiction, but there are also problems with prescription medicines like benzodiazepines, which are prescribed for anxiety and are very addictive," he says.

Bankers are resourceful, adds Serratt: they will often acquire large quantities of benzodiazepine from different private doctors to fuel their need. "Most people in banking are type A personalities, very driven and very ambitious and they don't know what healthy limits are," Serratt adds.

The preponderance of type A personalities in banking may be only part of the issue, however. An important study last year by Alexandra Michel, an ex-investment banking associate-turned assistant professor of management and organisation at the University of California, found that young bankers tend to abuse their bodies as they become socialized into working hard and trying to compete against others and themselves. "We have no use for managers. Our systems ensure that people control themselves, sometimes without knowing it. We just feedback to people how well they are doing and we leave it at that. We don’t even set targets. People compete against themselves," one investment banking director told Michel.

The banking body-abuse cycle 

Michel studied two departments at two investment banks (one comprising corporate financiers, the other salespeople and traders) and conducted hundreds of interviews. She eventually concluded that bankers go through a cycle of bodily abuse until they either drop out or take control.

One to three years: Abuse In the first 1-3 years of a banking career, Michel discovered that bankers tend to repress their bodies. During this period, they work hard regardless of exhaustion/broken legs/eating disorders/alopecia and do whatever is required to get the job done. Michel came across one female banker in this phase who had fallen and broken her leg in two places on the way to a meeting. Although it changed colour and was painful, the banker ignored the symptoms until her meeting was over.

Four to six years: Breakdown After 4 years in a banking career, Michel said bankers' bodies start fighting back. "Bankers developed embarrassing tics, such as nail biting, nose picking, or hair twirling," she discovered, adding that the bankers she studied, 'shopped, partied and consumed p*rnography' to combat numbness, achieve control and escape. At this stage, however, the previous years of bodily abuse start to become an issue.  “It is an ongoing battle. My body caves in one way and I find another way  around it,” one banker told Michel.

Six years plus: Care and attention Bankers who make it through the body-meltdown phase were compelled to start taking note of their physical limitations and to start looking after themselves, said Michel. Interestingly, she suggested that this applied most effectively to bankers who'd spent six years or more working for a single firm: "Bankers had to be socialized before they could distance themselves."

"The banker's brain is just another organ of the body"

In line with Michel's findings, Bean says many of the bankers he comes across tend to disregard their physical well-being. "The whole focus is on ability from the neck up, but you need to remember that the brain is just another organ of the body."

Nor are people aware of the damage they are doing with excess caffeine, says Bean: "Most businesses have smoking cessation and alcohol management programmes, but they don't have caffeine management programmes even though caffeine causes significant problems in the long run."

As alpha male bankers drink more and more caffeine and suppress the production of testosterone, they lose their edge, says Bean. A kind of male menopause, which usually happens in the late 30s and early 40s as testosterone production lapses, is brought forwards. "We see it a lot earlier in corporate men," he reflects.

Serratt says the bankers who come to him for addiction issues usually have underlying problems that need to be resolved. "It might be depression, anxiety, stress or simply poor quality of life - a lot of these people are working a million hours a week," he says.


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