The stressful nightmare of working in the Middle East banking sector
Financial professionals move to the Middle East for a numerous reasons – the tax-free salaries, a perceived improvement in lifestyle, experience in emerging markets or, traditionally, a chance to lay fallow in the twilight of their career. However, what they often encounter is an incredibly stressful working environment.
Middle East bankers are among the most stressed in the world – our own research suggests that most of this is down to a lack of job security (the bane of bankers everywhere currently), but recruiters Robert Half believe it’s largely down to overwork and a lack of recognition, with 41% of UAE-based HR directors it interviewed citing burnout among employees as a big concern.
What’s so stressful about working in the Middle East financial sector? After all, year-round sunshine and the prospect of a bling-filled expat lifestyle doesn’t seem like something that would cause panic attacks.
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“You have a melting pot of cultures within most banks in the Middle East, and this can cause stress for different reasons,” said one HR manager at a bulge bracket bank in Dubai. “You have the Harvard-educated elite investment banker types, who become frustrated at the slow pace of life here, then there are those from less developed financial centres struggling to keep up with the demands of the workplace.”
There are also a couple of other factors at play. Reduced appetite to recruit has resulted in teams that are increasingly stretched and bankers’ hours are on the up, suggest headhunters. On top of this a lack of recognition is a big issue for expat financial services professionals in particular – they’re slogging, while a local employee with an executive title takes the credit.
This is a big cause of workplace stress among bankers in the region, said Dr Raymond H. Hamden, clinical and forensic psychologist at the Human Relations Institute and Clinics in Dubai: “Recognition in the financial industry is usually measured via the money made. Therefore, materialism takes the cover more than human effort. The human factor is what needs to be reinforced to increase the effort leading to material gains.”
As a result, average tenure within an individual position tends to be relatively short – bankers do their stint in the Middle East and move on. “The nature of the expatriate recruitment market means that some individuals will come for a couple of years, enjoy the lucrative remuneration, career prospects and lifestyle that the UAE affords, then return to their home countries,” said Gareth El Mettouri, associate director, Robert Half Middle East.
Bankers have long been Blackberry addicts, but cultural norms in the Middle East make it very difficult to switch off. It’s acceptable for people to take a call on their mobile phone in any situation – be it a business meeting or a family barbeque – so the result is that bankers are constantly on call.
“There’s a tendency for firms in the UK and US to respect the weekends of their employees, but that doesn’t really happen here,” said the bank HR manager. “People expect you to be available on email, phone, instant messenger – you never get the opportunity to switch off.”