Stress is a growing problem in the financial sector. Psychology surgeries serving bankers are busier than ever, investment banks are employing resilience specialists to add some mental steel to their employees. And, increasingly, they’re turning to a psychological technique with roots in Buddhism.
The likes of Barclays, Citigroup, J.P. Morgan and the large professional services firms like PwC are offering their employees the chance to partake in mindfulness - a technique that emphasises active attention on the moment to block out the clutter of day-to-day life. The aim is to improve mental capacity, reduce stress and even counter depression. William George, a board member at Goldman Sachs, is also a big advocate of the technique, and is a member of the Institute for Mindful Leadership.
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The idea is to develop an awareness of what’s going on at a particular moment and, in turn, improve focus. You can spend between ten minutes to an hour each day practising the technique, which can involve anything from focusing entirely on your breathing or giving your full attention to a meal with absolutely no distractions. Essentially, you should apply this to your day-to-day life – if you find yourself ruminating on an annoying email, bad meeting or getting nervous for an upcoming interview, mindfulness techniques should, in theory, help you become aware of these feelings, and stop them.
If this all sounds a little wishy-washy, it’s worth pointing out that the breadth of research into its clinical benefits has spiralled in recent years, and the Mental Health Foundation has started a campaign to make it more freely available. Marina Grazier, co-founder of the Mindfulness Exchange – a spin-off from the University of Oxford’s Mindfulness Centre – said that in the past year, there’s been a “definite momentum change” in corporates utilising mindfulness.
“Clinical trials have proved that mindfulness is a good treatment for depression and anxiety conditions, and can be as effective as anti-depression pills. In the U.K., you are able to get mindfulness prescribed as a treatment for depression on the NHS,” she said. “However, more companies are using it not just to tackle stress, but to increase employee performance.”
Google offers mindfulness to its employees, although Grazier suggests this is further away from the clinical version of the treatment, and it’s being described as the ‘new caffeine’ in Silicon Valley. Its popularity is also helped by the fact that the U.S. Marine Corps is incorporating mindfulness into its curriculum.
However, it’s also gaining more traction in the financial sector. Louise Chester, director and co-founder of Mindfulness at Work, which works with City firms, credits it with saving her sanity during a “crazy period” working for UBS’s telecoms research team in the 1990s.
“HR departments like mindfulness because it makes their employees more effective,” she said. “It increases memory capacity, focus, emotional intelligence and makes you smarter. It trains you to use your prefrontal cortex, which allows you to make more measured responses in a way that adds value and reduces stress.”
For £65, Chester offers four sessions that give people the base to practice mindfulness in their own time. Most bank employees take part in their lunch hour or after work, she says, or attend its After Work club. She says that it allows you to “come off autopilot, make better decisions by using the wisdom” acquired through learning the technique.
More bankers are also looking to use mindfulness either to move jobs or exit the financial sector altogether, she adds.
“It allows you to transition a period of change more easily, as well as going into interviews less stress, more congruent and more confident,” she said. “It allows you to witness your thoughts and feelings in a dispassionate way, and cope with the rollercoaster of emotions life throws at you. Think of it like a film – instead of being in the film mindfulness allows you to stand back and observe it.”