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Is your finance job frying your health?

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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 Photo by hue12 photography on Unsplash

AUTHORDan Davies Insider Comment
  • bo
    29 October 2016

    Lori I like your post. It really made me laugh because I have experienced the same thing however it wasn't in the banking profession. It was in sales. I found that everyone was overweight and it was natural. Myself being a former athlete/cyclist it was and is hard to relate to a lot of people. Sure you have a nice Porsche but you have cankles and smell like an ash tray. I am still trying to find work at something I can do. For whatever reason I can't sit in front of a screen all day. It gives me anxiety to sit in that setting. There are people who do the job and are good at it, but for whatever reason even if I were qualified I don't think I could handle the stress or environment.

    My previous line of work was running a small labor intensive company. I could relate to the the article saying the year cycle of the persons body breaking down. My body broke down after 4 years doing hard manual labor. It is interesting how it also applies to physical jobs.

    Sometimes I really think that the value of the dollar and true success is in the work itself and the money is just secondary. A 2-3k income a month might produce a better quality of life/ exercise routine than a high paying position.

    My question is what is the answer? The non lethal jobs to health are 10-20 an hour jobs. However working for 10 an hour is also very hard financially which turns into mental stress which could lead to depression.

    I want answers people!

    ~A piece of chocolate in a box signing out.

  • br
    3 March 2016

    after observing hundreds of friends and acquaintances, i think the moral of the story is to put your time in to make big bucks, be thrifty and move on to more fulfilling endeavors...before you crash and burn

  • ch
    23 February 2016

    Hey Lori,

    I totally understand where you are - I worked on Wall for 8 yrs while juggling an MBA part-time. Still worked out and tried to eat healthy but eventually suffered a collapsed lung (twice) before I was 30.

    3 years ago I left NYC and moved to THailand to follow my dream of fighting Muay Thai (kickboxing). Have done various online business ventures but now found my true-calling - coaching people into finding their true life-path and escaping this so called "American Dream" / rat-race. I'd love to help you. Please reach out to me directly:


  • lo
    27 April 2013

    Office jobs period will destroy your mind and body. I don't care what you do. Most people who work in offices become boring cliche people after a while with back problems. They know this also. The office where I work has four women who weigh about 280 pounds each in management positions over me. Every single person is overweight with the exception of me and a woman who goes out for a smoke ten times a day. She is skinny and has a nice butt - however her face looks like a lizard.

    I just started this job. For several years I have worked out and do regular mountaineering in both summer and winter. However, after only three months at my des, I am struggling to find the energy to keep my workouts going on schedule. Many, many nights I feel like I am just going to collapse. I feel like I want to sleep for a year. I am not a party-er. I rarely if ever drink alcohol. I don't do any drugs. In fact I do very little socializing because my life consists of working, sleeping and then frantically using what's left of the time inbetween to clothe myself, eat and try to keep my body from falling to pieces. My diet has suffered without ever partaking in one round of the ritual "I bought 20 cakepops!" "Pizza" "It's Girl Scout Cookie-time" or the bi-weekly donut meeting much relished by the 300-pound analyst crowd. I do not have the time to maintain a continually healthy routine. I HATE THIS LIFESTYLE. IT IS HIDEOUS. Let me out of here.

  • an
    25 April 2013

    I must be working in the wrong banks. More than 6 years, not less than 50% of people sitting next to me go to gym 3-4 times a week, ride or run to work... and work long hours.

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