Expat banker burnout in far flung locations

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Moving to an exotic land for new deals, new contacts and a new lifestyle once seemed so romantic. But as more Western bankers chase jobs and higher pay in the Middle East, Asia and Latin America, they’re finding that heavy workloads and performance pressures, combined with a new and often unfamiliar culture, push them towards burnout.

One reason such cases are on the rise: more bankers are pursuing jobs outside their home countries not because they’re adventurous, but because other opportunities have dried up.  Some just aren’t suited for life away from home. “It’s not a strategic decision to take a job in an emerging market – bankers are often reacting to losing their job in their home market and then being unable to find a new one,” said Richard Jolly, adjunct professor of organisational behaviour at London Business School.

Research by recruiters Robert Half suggests that human resource professionals in the UAE are increasingly concerned about burnout among their employees – 89% of those surveyed were worried about losing top performers because stress brought about by increased workloads, a lack of recognition and economic pressures.

Many expats aren’t fully prepared for the stress of unfamiliar territory. “The investment bankers we work with have often moved there without really researching the region, or getting the full buy-in of their family, and the twin pressures of the role and home life are inherently stressful,” said Jolly.

Burnout doesn’t just come from high levels of stress in the workplace, but also from a low feeling of control, ongoing anxiety about job prospects and pressures to maintain an image of themselves as a high-performer, said Jolly.

“Bankers are moving to ever-more distant countries for career progression, money, status and upholding a particular lifestyle, but pursuing material objects doesn’t promote well-being and the pressure to maintain this increases anxiety,” said Dr Michael Sinclair, a consultant psychologist and clinical director at the City Psychology Group. “You have the house, the big bonus, but what next? Bankers spend too much time doing and not enough time being – like a hamster in a wheel their brains never switch off.”

It doesn’t help that the “psychological contract” between banks and bankers has shifted, said Jolly. “The job is just as hard as it ever was, but the rewards are becoming smaller, the career prospects shakier, and there’s much less pride attached to working in the sector,” he said. “I’ve heard of bankers saying they’re teachers at dinner parties just to avoid getting into a conversation about working in the industry.”

The now famous article by Stephen Ridley, who quit investment banking to pursue a career as a singer/songwriter, highlighted the pressures of a junior banker.

“Fifteen hour days were a minimum, 16-17 were normal, 20+ were frequent and once or twice a month there would be the dreaded all-nighter,” he wrote. “I worked around two out of every four weekends in some form. I was never free, I always had my Blackberry with me, and thus I could never truly detach myself from the job.”

Sinclair said that most of his Canary Wharf clients are either analysts buckling under the pressure of the job, or senior executives approaching burnout.

“People working in such a demanding, competitive environment which requires 24/7 attention to the job become institutionalised and sacrifice their personal life,” he said. “Then, when they are in danger of losing their job, there’s a lot of anger and finger-pointing. Some move further afield for a new opportunity, others leave the industry entirely.”

To combat such loss of talent, some firms are hiring more staff to share the load.  “Many companies are increasing their headcount to help manage workloads and reduce the pressure on some individuals,” said James Sayer, director, Robert Half UAE. “It is important for managers to maintain open lines of communication with their employees so they can identify signs before they become problematic.”

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