Focus and fear: Why bankers are cancelling their holidays

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You don’t want to be that guy; desperately searching for a signal for your mobile phone, so you can conference into an urgent meeting while your family lazes on a remote Mediterranean beach. You need a break, so why are so many finance professionals staying put this year?

August is usually a dead zone in the City of London because of holiday season. This is less the case on Wall Street where any time away from the office is frowned upon and time off in Asia tends to be spread throughout the year.

This year, it’s different though. “All the senior bankers are tied to their desks,” says one analyst working for a US investment bank in London. “We’re more dispensable, so a lot of juniors are going on holiday anyway, but anyone from VP upwards is sticking around.”

Let’s face it, any holiday for investment bankers invariably means going down a gear rather than switching off entirely. Tales of bankers’ families grimly resigned to them continually checking their emails or patching in for conference calls with clients and colleagues abound.

This year, suggest the bankers we spoke to, the whole thing is exaggerated. People are cancelling their holidays, or even coming back early. Part of this is fear – investment banks are cutting again and you don’t want to return from holiday to a pink slip.

Nomura, which laid off 60 people in its fixed income business earlier this month, allegedly fired some when they were out of the office on holiday. “Stories like that go around the City like wildfire. You don’t want to be seen to be replaceable,” says one former salesman on the condition of anonymity.

Then there’s the market meltdown/correction slap bang in the middle of the quietest day of the year. Wealth managers have been “managing clients’ mounting anxiety” over the past week from cabins in the woods. Brokers have returned to help sooth concerns of nervous clients. Hedge fund managers bemoan having to give “play by play” advice to numerous investors on performance from the Hamptons.

Is it all worth it? Perhaps not. Graham Ward, the former co-head of European equities at Goldman Sachs and now adjunct professor of leadership at INSEAD, says you’ll probably be replaced anyway.

“People in banking should realise that they are dispensable. One day whether they like it or not they will be replaced. So enjoy life now. You will be more professionally effective, sharper and healthier if you take a break now and then. It’s a long game…if you want to be a winner, pace yourself accordingly,” he says.

The equity capital markets teams of investment banks are currently tied to their desks in anticipation of a pipeline of deals in September and October, according to a report in Financial News.

“The heavy autumn pipeline has definitely contributed to people not taking a holiday this year, but it’s also the start of a number of new projects that have played a part,” says one junior ECM banker. “Long weekends have also been cancelled, and it’s impossible to take time off during autumn because the workstreams to push deals through will resume.”

Ward works with banks on leadership strategies and says the old guard are still pushing a culture of extreme hours. One MD he worked with hadn’t taken a holiday for 13 years, he said.

“He was 41 and close to burnout. His team were angry with him because the behaviour he was role modelling made them feel guilty for taking time off. In his essence he was a pleaser: he thought the route to success was to show through ‘hard work and dedication’ that he was a winner and that his bosses would appreciate it. In reality his performance was dropping,” he says.

As trite as it may seem, you need time to recharge the batteries and this involves some time out of work.

“He lost the ability to stand back from his business and be reflective. He gave himself no time to renew, even working weekends. He was constantly in a reactive state, and lost his capacity to strategise. His solution: to work harder still. It was a lose/lose strategy,” says Ward.