The secret to avoiding an early death when you work in finance

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Working to death.  Business man's skeleton using laptop in office.

It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that middle-aged investment bankers are statistically more likely to be at early risk of heart disease. Working 70-hour weeks while remaining sedentary behind a desk often leads to unhealthy and irregular eating patterns, lack of sleep, limited exercise and high levels of stress. The antidote for many is to put in their time and leave the industry before they burnout or keel over. Others try ordering sushi for every meal, practicing yoga and getting acupuncture. Another solution to remaining upright while on the job is: use every day of your allotted vacation time, no matter what.

In a groundbreaking update to an old study, researchers found that businessmen who take less vacation time than their colleagues are significantly more likely to die early – even if they put in the work to become physically healthier. The details of the research make the results much more eye-raising. The fact is, the 40-year study wasn’t even designed to identify the effects of taking time away from the office. It followed more than 1,200 middle-aged male executives who had at least one risk factor for cardiovascular disease (smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, elevated triglycerides, glucose intolerance, being overweight). Half the businessmen were put into a program where they were encouraged to do aerobic physical activity, eat a healthy diet, achieve a healthy weight and stop smoking. These respondents were also given medication for high blood pressure and other issues when needed. The other half received typical healthcare as before but weren’t seen by investigators.

As one may imagine, the intervention group’s risk of cardiovascular disease after five years dropped significantly – by 47%. And there the study ended, until 15-year and 30-year follow ups. Shockingly, researchers found that the death rate was consistently higher in the intervention group compared to the control group. This forced them to go back and look at previously unreported data. The factor that moved the needle: vacation time. Those in the intervention group who took three weeks or less annual vacation had a 37% greater chance of dying within the 30-year window.

“This stressful lifestyle may have overruled any benefit of the intervention,” said study author Timo Strandberg of the University of Helsinki. "Don't think having an otherwise healthy lifestyle will compensate for working too hard and not taking holidays.”

Psychologist and lifestyle coach Andrea Goeglein, founder of Serving Success, said she’s not surprised with findings. Goeglein, who has previously consulted with an investment bank and calls financial professionals clients, said it’s all-too-common for busy people to pass on vacations, and that it’s the already-stressed-out employees that are the most likely to do so, exacerbating potential health problems.

People who work in finance are particularly in need of taking vacation time because they are more likely to deal with prolonged stress that accompanies the long hours. Acute stress from a 9-5 job is like a car crash, she said. “You can recover from it.” Prolonged stress causes your health to ultimately deteriorates, she said.

Part of the problem is the “frat-like culture” of banks that encourage marathon workdays, Goeglein acknowledged. She recalled being hired by an investment bank to study junior employees to see how morale could be improved. Goeglein ultimately found the bank incentivized the wrong results. “Instead of rewarding performance, they were rewarding attendance.” She says that HR and leadership at the top rung of companies have since recognized this problem, but managers on the ground floor have yet to fully integrate and respect the new policies.

All that said, the responsibility of ensuring bankers take the appropriate time away sits with the employee. Goeglein recommends those who find themselves struggling to justify getting away communicate with their boss on their terms. “Everything has a dollar cost in this economy,” she said. “Approach it by saying: 'I know we are working on this,' and then explain how it will be covered in your absence."

But ultimately, it’s all about attitude, understanding your worth to the company and knowing that the only thing you are risking by not taking a vacation is your own health, she said. “You need to be confident in your tradeoffs and communicate to them in ways others can’t.”

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

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