On stress and burnout. A personal perspective

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In Monday’s FT, Elizabeth Uviebinene has had an excellent piece describing burnout, and suggesting how to thrive in the office, published. She defines it as overwhelming exhaustion, accompanied by feelings of cynicism and detachment and a sense of lack of accomplishment. “A prolonged response to chronic stress that can lead to…depression”. I can tick all of those boxes, and all for the last eight or nine years of my career. Perversely, as defined by title and salary, they were most successful period I enjoyed, with one rather tricky interruption, that I think was catalysed by my burnout. Her article brought a number of things flooding back to me. 

I have thought long and hard about this. Not about writing it. It is quite cathartic. I am sure I suffered burnout, and I tried hard to think about my team’s individual risks of burnout, when I had managerial roles. What I thought long and hard about, was pushing the ‘publish’ and the ‘send’ buttons that make my experiences more public than I have ever thought they might or ought to be. Things, however, seem to be aligning for me. 

In my Birkbeck degree course in Business Psychology, I am about to study a module on mental health in the workplace. It covers everything from stress to work-life balance to neurodiversity. My continuing learning with both the British Psychotherapy Foundation and the Institute of Psychoanalysis, is making me more sensitive to the foundations of mental anxiety. And, I am now some months into my own analysis, which is making me a little more comfortable with sharing experiences, and trying to understand myself. 

In my City career, I had a number of demanding roles and I liked to put myself under pressure. In 2002, I topped a poll for being the best in my field in equity sector research marketing, thanks to working with a brilliant analyst, and being prepared to travel everywhere, and frequently, to ensure our clients had the best and most personal service. Only now do I realise how manic that period was, and how much pressure it put on my family life. 

At other times, I have had the privilege, but also the pressure of handling substantial financial capital (I was a proprietary trader from 2004 through the start of the Global Financial Crisis into 2008) and handling human and intellectual capital (I headed sales teams at three different investment banks and had responsibility for staff in London, Paris, Dusseldorf and Madrid, at different times). 

For the first thirty years of my career I was confident that I could handle any stress that I might have been subject to, and that, by contrast, I thrived on it. It appealed to the competitor in me, and I knew that I could outperform any rivals because of a capacity for hard work. It was a typically thoughtless, macho approach. I heeded no warning sign when the in-house doctor at the US bank employing me, responded to a regular visit from me by sending me to the Priory. I was told that I was not ill, but that I had a far from unusual streak of perfectionism and I was over-working. I was introduced to CBT and after a handful of sessions, I was on my merry way again. 

In 2012, my work style and the demands of my role, intruded on my life in a way that fundamentally altered me, my sense of trust and my relationships at home. After a thirty year, near-exemplary career, I made a mistake. I was at my desk at 5.56am (yes, I know; absurd), having left the office some time after ten pm the previous evening, with the memo that I had prepared about a corporate client’s major announcement. As Head of Sales, I was ‘over the wall’ with privileged information. I sent an e-mail. I sent another at 6.15am. The announcement was embargoed until a 7am ‘go public’ time. Trouble. Even when someone said to me about 6.30am, ‘did you mean to send that?’, I did not smell the trouble. Cognition break down. Probably stress.

Even today, I have no sense of why I pressed ‘send’ and what, if anything, was in my mind. But I was culpable. The upshot was that I was fired. Worse still, I was fired with the taint of ‘gross misconduct’. I have little doubt that the accumulation of stress contributed to my aberration. Perhaps, in today’s less stigmatised environment, I might have been treated differently and given a sabbatical and help. Instead I had a new world of financial devastation. (I still had a mortgage, my two youngest children in boarding school and no income, but also the ‘gross misconduct’ label meant that my years of accumulated worth of shares was wiped out. It cost me hundreds of thousands.) Financial devastation was joined by social humiliation and by emotional destruction.

I strongly suspect that the episode contributed to the subsequent break up of my marriage and to my divorce. When I read the FT article I found myself wishing I was back at my desk, but that I had decided that I had done enough preparation on the prior evening, and I would walk in at 7am. I might still be working for that same US bank – after all it was only my second employer in over thirty years. The City, though, is a remarkable place, and years of hard won respect can yield great benefits. A former colleague, now ensconced in a managerial role with a large French bank got in touch. Despite a CV that I thought would now exclude me from working again in banking, he interviewed me for a role in his sales team. I got back on the horse, albeit a little unsteadily. 

The new bank had a style that did not suit me. It was hierarchical. When I had my exit interview, I accused it of harbouring a culture of ‘institutional bullying’. I am sure it would dispute my perspective, but that was what I felt. Hindsight has taught me that I took out my anger at my previous employer’s actions on my new employer, which had rescued me from the scrapheap and may have wondered why it had bothered. Certainly, I tested the judgement of the man who offered me the job, in his peers’ eyes. I regret that. Generally, I behaved stroppily, and complained about all the iniquities, as I saw them. 

I did, however, try its in-house ‘Stress helpline’. It gave me a second introduction to CBT and a remarkable therapist who helped me understand my striving, and my compulsions and how destructive they could be. That helpline structure is confidential and kept from one’s managers. It is a brilliant resource. My managers could see I had demanding standards, but also that I was undermining what they had in place. They needed to think about how to utilise me. Thoughts about my mental health and welfare would not have come into it. 

The solution, after I had suggested that they simply decide that I had failed my six-month probation, was to promote me. I was back in charge of a sales team. I continued to chafe against the prevailing culture and was encouraged to consider a move to Asia, to set up an equities business in Singapore. As that played out I was being headhunted by a London based bank. Its office sat directly opposite the employer who had destroyed my wealth and reputation (as I saw it). Asia was of no interest now – this was my chance to show what had been missed by treating me unreasonably. 

My new employer was very bureaucratic (and still is, I am assured), and it had an inner cabal of decision makers. Management was remarkably narrow for such a large business. Promotions were in the gift of those who liked to promote people in their own image. Groupthink was rife, and contrary opinions were sometimes humoured, but rarely welcomed. Despite my extraordinary good fortune in being back in such an exciting, well-remunerated and responsible role, I believed that I had been employed as an ‘agent of change’ and started to try to improve where I could. I relished not being a ‘yes man’. Basically, ego getting in the way. 

In Elizabeth Uviebinene’s article are a number of recommendations for dealing with burnout. Sensitive to my past, I had promised myself that no job was going to prevent me putting my health first. When I joined the French, I made sure that I gave myself regular gym visits in my schedule. My self-discipline is poor, so the only way to ensure that is to commit to having a personal trainer. Then, you feel that you cannot let someone else down, and ensure you turn up on time. Post-gym I was always more enthused and dynamic. I felt the benefit, physically and mentally. 

My old industry suffers with a curse of presenteeism. Worse, when people are sat at a sales desk from pre-7am to 5.30pm or later, they are often unproductive for most of those hours. I wanted my team out of the office, seeing clients and freshening up their views. We started exploring the capacity for creating personalised sales packs to have on portable tablets, and working increasingly remotely. Above all, I wanted to give some staff, especially those exhausted by child care and longish commutes, the chance to work from home one day a week. They had to commit to read a couple of lengthy research pieces and to distil them for the purposes of their colleagues. Clients read little research, but read more than the people selling to them, who drown in daily output and who often restrict themselves to a summary from the front page, and a couple of salient points and charts to highlight. 

I wanted the ‘best informed about its own product’ team, and I wanted staff who would be invigorated by breaking their routines, and inspired by sharing their work with their colleagues – competing for how best to sell an idea, and to show some unheard of creativity. My seniors gave me plenty of rope. I was told that any sort of working from home was anathema, but that I could go ahead with the plan provided I never claimed I had authority for it, and if I could handle any of the likely negative consequences to come. 

I was encouraged to redesign the sales roles and to consider new specialisations working more closely with the other asset classes, with derivatives, and trying to drive greater consideration of ESG investing. My contention was it was a space that any bank could dominate given it had been badly covered until then, and I was convinced the ‘G’ bit – Governance – was where we could establish our eminence. It became clear that for all the pretence of looking for fresh ideas, thinking and strategy, really what was wanted was conformity and as little impact on the status quo as possible. Cognitive dissonance kicked in. Stressful. Equities was a small business in a group context, and should be seen but little heard. It was not a petri dish for culture change. 

I was also keen on the marriage of physical health and mental health. I encouraged gym visits (the bank had one on the site) and let it be known that I had regular yoga classes (not just because I found it beneficial, even though I do, but to make a statement). It did not take long before desk absences and gym visits became the negative topic highlighted in senior management’s ‘Town Halls’. References were made to ‘holiday camps’. This is the sort of cultural challenge that helping employees deal with chronic stress and anxiety, struggles to overcome. My petulant response was to keep trying to be a little different.

That manifested itself in resisting the creation of KPIs for the team. These are acute stressors. In a contracting industry, staff know that a redundancy round is never far away. The madness of KPIs is like ‘teaching to the test’. Creativity, which sales teams need, is smashed, and staff learn how to ‘game the system’ to protect their seat. Encouraging teamwork; it does not. It is another example of an obsession with scoring systems and of treating employees like engine cogs. It is back to Taylorism.

My argument, which fell on stony ground, was that the regulatory change that Mifid II presented the industry made most of the things that we thought we should be recording, redundant. Encouraging gym visits and ‘working from home’ could be just about tolerated as the mad thoughts of a delusional head of sales, but woe betide a man who does not love a KPI or several. A battle was underway and I lost it. Happily. 

Now I am eighteen months distant from my City career and I can think about what I learned and what I might have done differently. The thing that is most striking since my first day in 1982, is the changes in the length of the days and the disappearance of lunches. I am not convinced that the sandwich at the desk trend, is better for a business and its employees, than the often boozy lunch hours I grew up enjoying. I tried to encourage my sales team members to join me at a wine bar for short lunches rather than have interminable and frequent internal meetings fuelled by bad coffee. 

According to Michael Leiter, an Australian academic studying burnout, its prime cause is “a mismatch of how people want to work and the actual conditions of work.” See above for presenteeism. As Elizabeth Uviebinene highlights, we are victims of an apparent desire to ‘optimise’ our lives (see above re KPIs), and quotes BuzzFeed writer Anne Helen Petersen, who wrote “we’re deeply in debt, working more hours for less pay and security, struggling to achieve the same living standards as our parents, operating in psychological and physical precariousness”. 

I am proud of my City career, but wish I had been more sensitive to the mental demands it was making on me, and how that affected my relationships outside of work. If anyone thinks I can help them through their own feelings of stress, burnout, anxiety, I should be delighted to hear from them.  Selfishly, it may help me with my university module, but my primary motivation is because I would not want anyone to lose a career (and some of their financial security) for the sin of being at the desk at 5.56am and sending an untimely e-mail. 

8 thoughts on “On stress and burnout. A personal perspective

  1. Incredibly honest account and you are spot on. Stress on the trading desks at the big banks was omnipresent, part and parcel of the job, the good managers used to cut you slack. Our loyalty wasn’t to the firms we worked for (as it was in the halcyon days way before Big Bang) but to our immediate team. In reality, managers didn’t care about your lifestyle or state of mental health as long as you delivered results. If you didn’t achieve results, you were out. These days employees at banks live in fear of the next upcoming cull, keep their heads down, game the system to keep their seat.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Joe. I think we all enjoyed demonstrating that we could handle stress. The pressures helped us justify some decent earnings potential. Managers of that era were very good at building collegiate structures and knowing when to open valves to let off steam. Working in and around the old stock market also brought variety in interactions. Trapped in a single office in a large bank building leads to conformity and to a dulling of the senses and the number of people one meets and greets shrink.

      You and I know that pressure is both attractive, compelling and near-addictive from our various sporting achievements. In isolation it is all fine, but it is the cumulative effect that was and is still poorly understood. I think it impaired my judgement on one particular day, and I think I have seen the destructive impact on many of the people I managed. It was especially clear in the post 2008 environment when job security was so much weaker.

      For all that I think we were blessed to work through a golden age of the City from 1982 to 2007 and it gave me responsibilities and financial rewards that I would never have anticipated when I started. I am glad to have worked through that era and to have been given management responsibility post the Crisis, but I am glad that I now have the opportunity to try a different lifestyle and to explore new avenues professionally


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