“Burnout is like the subprime crisis – no one ever sees it coming”
'Christine' is a former trader-turned salesperson for a major investment bank. During the course of the financial crisis, she was exhausted by her interactions with a harsh manager. Here’s her account of how burnout becomes almost the norm for people working in the banking industry.
“Burnout is like the subprime crisis - no one ever sees it coming. At least that was my experience - I knew I was stressed, but I didn't know how badly it would affect me.
From the start of the financial crisis, my working environment changed. Suddenly, it felt like I was fire-fighting all the time. Clients were disappearing following losses and disagreements, a new boss left with his flock (yes, clearly I wasn’t included), there were mergers between teams and battles of ego, people were moved abroad and – perhaps most troubling of all – volumes were down, regulation was multiplying and it was becoming increasingly difficult to find ways of making money. Clients weren’t spending, and we were starting to suffer.
As usual, it was bonuses which underscored the extent of the issue. I was told, via telephone, that I’d be receiving a lot less than the previous year – despite being at the heart of the team and making a strong P&L in the circumstances. No reason was given.
I asked for, and achieved, a transfer into another team. That was when my problems really began.
To begin with, life in the new team was fine. But it quickly became apparent that I was working under an incompetent manager who was operating a policy of divide and rule. He made absurd demands – I had to be present on 90 minute daily calls which were of no relevance to my business even when I was on holiday, I had to cancel client meetings at the last minute, I had to drop deals and was told only the night before that I’d be going to London the next day.
It was the standard problem in investment banking. People are promoted to managerial positions despite having no managerial ability.
After three months, I tried asking HR for help. Ideally, I wanted another change of team. However, they said that it would be difficult to arrange anything immediately and that I’d have to continue in my current role while something was sorted out.
Three months later, things started to go downhill without any real warning. I lost weight (around 6kg). I couldn't sleep. I couldn’t focus. I became anxious and nauseous. I consulted a doctor at work who said I was extremely stressed and warned my manager that I needed to be treated gently. But nothing changed. I continued to be subject to the same unreasonable demands and my manager acted with impunity.
And then one day, on the way to work, I was forced to confront what was going on. I stopped off at my doctor’s. Even though I was insistent that I wanted to work, he made me take three weeks out. He also told me to see a psychologist. I did, and was prescribed a compendium of pharmaceuticals – antidepressants, anti-anxiety drugs, sleeping tablets. The main effect was to make me into a zombie – but I was at least a zombie who was answering my emails (which my boss was still sending me at all hours).
It was my husband who took the decisive step. He threw away the battery to my Blackberry, saying I needed a total break. Ultimately, I took a whole year out and spent that time slowly recovering. I needed to resurface, to regain confidence, and to reconstruct myself at a fairly fundamental level.
The return to work wasn’t easy. HR didn’t contact me at all during my sick leave, and when I returned I was faced with sideways glances, silences and awkward questions. Burnout isn’t something that’s discussed in banking. I was stigmatized and I couldn't help but resent it.
I was placed back into the trading team which I moved out of initially, but in a sales job. I've got a good network of clients and am settled in my new role. However, I still have to face the perception that I’ve been in quarantine and am somehow an impediment to the team. It's not easy and is a perception that I can only overcome with time.”