By Paul Chapman, Managing Director, HornbyChapman Ltd
The general perception of a banker’s life to the man in the street – as long as that street is not in either the Square Mile or Canary Wharf – is one of a charmed existence; an enviable mixture of riches, glamour and excess where success and its trappings come easily. This image is fuelled by the popular media, with Gordon Gekko being the default poster boy for anything even vaguely related to financial services, resulting in ‘banker bashing’ effectively becoming a new national sport.
However, as those of you reading this piece will be able to verify, whilst it is true to say that rewards can be high, what is not known or accepted by the general public is the high price of attaining those rewards. From the announcement that Hector Sants has left Barclays, having taken three months off work due to stress, through the terrible but thankfully rare stories of suicides within the City of London to the story of the young graduate who died after allegedly working for 72 hours, it should be apparent that something is increasingly remiss with the work-life balance within financial services and banking (speaking generically).
This is a relatively new phenomenon; in days gone by, workers would be able to leave their desks at 6pm at the latest and be able to de-stress before the next day or over the weekend. Now, with the advent of 24/7 technology and the attendant curse of ‘presenteeism’, workers feel guilty if they do not respond to emails or calls after hours, over weekends or during holidays. The statutory two week out of contact ‘full holiday’ period, based on the old equity settlement period and designed to flush out any miscreant activity, is blatantly ignored – the thinking being that if one’s boss can see the firm / division / team survive without you for two weeks then it can probably survive without you thereafter.
This brings me to the other big issue, that of job insecurity. Until recently, financial services afforded a sufficiently high degree of job security that investment decisions – be they for property, holidays, housing or education – could be made with a large element of certainty that you would still be gainfully employed when the time arrives to pay for them. However, many folks have gone into work at 8am on a Monday morning in the belief that they have a full career ahead of them, only to receive the dreaded call asking them to ‘come to the 11th floor’ (or some such equivalent) to be met by their line manager, HR and a black bag for their belongings.
A recent study by the Swiss-based UNI Global Union found that more than 80 per cent of financial services unions in 26 countries cited deteriorating health as a major problem for their members in the last two years. The aforementioned banker-bashing, increased workloads, higher sales targets, longer hours and an increased risk of redundancy have combined to make our industry a rather unpleasant one in which to work. Added to that, the traditional ‘macho’ approach of simply laughing off stress or self-medicating – historically with alcohol but increasingly with stronger and even more harmful, if less obvious, methods – has meant that stress has crept up to become a clear and present danger which needs to be met head on. I’d therefore make a plea, both to employees and their managers, to consider the long-term impact on their health of the job they’re doing and the actions they’re taking. Is the marginally increased revenue worth the diminution of happiness and a possibly shortened lifespan? To managers specifically, I’d appeal to your humanity – and, failing that, to your bottom line, given the associated productivity loss, health costs and reputation impact of having a stressed, unhealthy and unhappy workforce – to focus on helping your employees to redress their work- life balance as a priority. Would working as a contractor help, insofar as you’d be running your own business and, as your own boss, be more in control of your own destiny? Would a change of career help? Or a change of country? You may find the task of adapting to these new challenges to be refreshing. Try drinking less, exercising more, eating healthier and getting more sleep. If that still doesn’t work, and your stress levels are impacting others around you, perhaps seek some professional assistance?
I make no apologies if my comments sound unduly negative or pessimistic. However, in the course of my work I hear an increasing number of stories of people who are more stressed than they have ever been, to the point that this is having a damaging impact on themselves and their loved ones. For too long this issue has been swept under the table. As a tightly-knit and generally collegiate industry, it behoves us all to aim for a better working environment.