If you work in investment banking, the chances are that you’re miserable. A succession of job cuts, a lack of career progression and smaller teams dealing with a bigger workload has increased stress, reduced job satisfaction and led many to question why they’re sticking around.
Hector Sants isn’t the only one feeling the pressure in the banking sector. Banker bashing, lower pay, increased pressure and the ever-swinging axe has created more health problems in the sector over the past two years, according to a new report by banking union, UNI Finance. Meanwhile, recruiters Randstad polled 2,000 financial services professionals and found that 42% were dissatisfied in their current position (one of the highest proportions of any industry) – something that increases absenteeism and eventual departure, it suggests.
Employers are at least recognising that they have an issue. According to careers coaches and psychologists working in the financial sector, investment banks trying to engage with their staff to increase job satisfaction and reduce stress. However, there are steps you can take to ensure a happier time in the office.
What is really driving you to succeed in your career? According to Dr Michael Sinclair, managing director of the City Psychology Group, fear is a huge factor in the financial sector. Fear of failure, fear of falling behind the competition, fear of being paid less or (quite justifiably) being laid off.
“The culture of the financial sector means that people are always striving for more, they work harder to succeed and continually raise the bar for themselves,” he said. “We encourage people to reflect on their values, not on career success and earning lots of money. If they only had a week to live, how important would their job be to them? We then try to get them to take a committed action to support their well-being.”
This ‘committed action’ doesn’t have to be a drastic life-changing decision. It can be something as simple as becoming a mentor, or providing support for a project, he says - something outside your job description that could make you feel better about yourself.
When Louise Chester was working as a telecoms analyst at UBS in the late-1990s, her role went from covering five companies to being overwhelmed by a series of privatisations in the sector and the emergence of mobile-phone players. She turned to mindfulness – a meditation technique that emphasises active attention to the current moment – which she credits with reducing stress levels and improving her effectiveness. Today’s working environment – with smaller teams taking on bigger workloads – create parallels with her situation, she says.
“It’s incredibly easy to practise mindfulness, taking just minutes out of each day, and the science now proves its effectiveness,” said Chester, who now runs Mindfulness at Work. “We’re working with a number of investment banks now who recognise its benefits to employees.”
Dissatisfaction among financial professionals comes from both being stressed and demoralised in their current job, and feeling that there’s nowhere else to go, said Andrew Pullman, founder of consultancy People Risk Solutions and a former head of HR at Dresdner Bank. He’s working with a number of investment bankers who can’t find a new opportunity in the job market right now, or want to leave the industry altogether, he said.
“For some people, leaving is a definite option, but for those with children in private school and a large mortgage, it’s impractical just to quit. I’ve dealt with people who have walked out after a bad bonus, or a period of over-work with no promotion or salary increase, but they have nowhere else to go,” he said. “Take the emotion out of the decision – do a SWOT analysis of your career. You may find that there were good factors you hadn’t considered, or any decision to leave would have at least been properly thought out."
One of the primary reasons stress is allowed to emerge is continual rumination on events that are out of your control. Focusing on the prospect of redundancy, the potential for a smaller pay packet or general feelings of underachievement in your career is a vicious cycle, said Sinclair. The trick, he says, is a psychological technique called ‘diffusion’, where you see the thoughts as what they are – your own emotional fixations.
“Sing the thoughts to an upbeat tune like Happy Birthday, or Jingle Bells; repeat them out loud rapidly, or present them as a punchline for a joke,” he said. “This is Acceptance Commitment Therapy, a mixture of mindfulness and acceptance strategies, which is being taken up by more people in the financial sector and executives.”
Resilience is one of the primary mechanisms banks use to tackle stress in their employees, with firms attempting to instil mental steel so that their staff can better meet the demands of the job. One of the techniques increasingly being used by investment banks looking to make their employees more resilient is Heart Math, according to Pullman. The idea is use techniques that make you more aware of how your heart reacts during stressful situations, with the aim of better controlling your heart rate and ultimately reducing stress.
“Stress in the financial sector goes way beyond a few high profile cases of burnout,” said Pullman. “Knowing what’s going on under the bonnet during stressful scenarios is integral to combating it.”
It’s tempting to think, having taken on more responsibilities and having to stay in the office all hours, that you’ve become an indispensible member of the team. Therefore, when it comes to shaking up their career – either getting an elevated title, more money, or both – most people resort to threats, says Pullman. This would be a mistake.
“Sit down with your manager and explain that, given the scarce resources, you need to prioritise x and y, which means there’s a possibility that z won’t be completed in time,” he said. “This makes it clear that you’re stretched, and allows management to make an informed decision on what to prioritise. You’re essentially offering them information to make a decision on something that could help you, rather than threatening to leave, which usually results in being shown the door.”