Banks need to face up to drugs at work

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As long as employee performance is not impaired by drug use, U.S. and UK financial services firms will turn a blind eye.

Banks in the U.S. and UK doing little or no testing for drug abuse within their ranks could be doing workers, and themselves, a disservice according to medical staff working with industry employees: drugs are widespread and workers could benefit from a more proactive approach to the problem from the banking community.

Dr. Stephen Pereira, consultant psychiatrist at Keats House, a branch of the Priory Clinic committed to helping employees in the City of London who suffer from addiction and other psychological problems, says drugs are prevalent in banking: 'People take drugs across the board, from investment banking to the trading floor.'

Pereira says cocaine and ecstasy are the drugs typically favoured by financial services staff. However, he says both drugs take second place to alcohol: 'For every 30 people we see with cocaine addiction, 100 will have problems with alcohol. City workers drink to cope with stress.'

U.S. banking staff cope in the same way. Dr. Alden Cass, a clinical psychologist with Catalyst Strategies in New York who specialises in treating Wall Street workers suffering from addiction, says bankers use alcohol as a form of self-medication to deal with the stresses of the job. But, he says, the long hours worked by junior bankers also encourage junior staff to abuse illegal substances: 'Staff in their 20s and 30s often feel they need to put in the hours just to show they're keeping up with the top people. Many use amphetamines and cocaine simply to keep themselves awake.'

Help yourself

Workers who think that a drug or alcohol habit has turned into an addiction are advised to seek help before the problem becomes acute. Consult the following websites for more information on how to get help: https://www.prioryhealthcare.co.uk; https://www.bupa.co.uk/wellness; and https://www.catalyststrategies.com.

Cass warns that bankers who begin using illegal drugs simply to overcome fatigue are likely to notice adverse effects before long: 'The long term consequences can be depression and addiction. Sleep deprivation takes its toll: when the drugs are not being used, you are likely to feel worse than ever.'

Bankers often delay asking for help until the problem turns into a crisis. Pereira says relationship break-ups, impaired decision making, and falling productivity are the factors that lead patients to confront their addictions.

Many employees are afraid to seek help for fear that their employer will learn of their problem. However, their fears are usually unfounded: consultations are confidential and employers are often willing to support people who acknowledge they have a problem and are doing something about it.

Cass says his regimen for treating financial services employees who suffer from drug dependency involves a combination of lifestyle re-balancing and 'exposure-response training.' He says addicts often have impaired social relationships and need to recapture the balance between their work and personal lives. In exposure response training, addicts are shown the offending drug and encouraged to repeat statements such as, 'I remember how much money I spent on my cocaine habit and how I lost my wife and family as a result.'

Too little testing?

While perhaps willing to help current employees, a small and falling proportion of banks conduct effective drug screening before bringing staff on board according to medical staff at a private clinic in the City of London. Jenny Leeser, clinical director at Bupa Wellness, a private healthcare provider in the UK, says banks are not big testers: 'Most of our customers for this service are in safety-critical industries.'

In the UK, the drug testing debate has been revived following the publication of a report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. A survey of 200 UK companies for the report found that 4% currently test employees for drugs and that a further 9% were thinking of introducing tests over the next 12 months. However, few banks in London are willing to discuss their screening policies. Only Bear Stearns admitted to routine pre-employment screening in Europe.

Testing is more widespread on Wall Street. Banks such as Merrill Lynch, Deutsche Bank said they screen U.S. employees for illegal drugs prior to hiring them as standard practice. Employees who fail the screening are not hired.

The merits of pre-employment drug testing are open to debate. Substances such as cocaine can be eliminated from the body within just five days, making it easy to engineer a negative result. A London doctor who conducts drug tests for investment banks says: 'All but the most hardened users will just stop for the necessary period before a pre-employment test.'

More effective and more invasive random drug testing is a contentious issue. In the U.S., employees have sought to escape testing on the grounds that it is a breach of the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution: the right against unreasonable search and seizure. In Europe, employers that try to act upon positive results are liable to find themselves constrained by European Union human rights legislation.

Balanced approach

Some medical staff say, rather than more testing, the banking industry needs a better conceived and more consistent approach to drug use among its employees.

Pereira at Priory says banks have strict policies prohibiting the use of drugs at work but that few take the matter further: 'There isn't an active effort to tackle the drugs issue. As long as people perform, banks are usually happy to ignore it.'

Appearance and performance are all-important, says an equities salesperson at a bank in the City of London and a former cocaine addict: 'There were days when I'd only slept for three minutes the night before and was so paranoid I couldn't meet anyone's eye. But as long as I looked the part and my performance didn't suffer, I was fine.'

If random drug testing is introduced in the City, one doctor says banks will need to prepare themselves for the outcome: 'There will be a lot of positive results and banks will need the resources to manage that fact. They will have to be fully consistent in how they deal with positive drugs results in workers, whether underperforming employees or highly successful traders.'

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