Investment banking is one of the most high-pressure industries, and it’s no secret that the job can be incredibly stressful. Whether it’s the long hours, the intense competition, or the pressure to generate profits and not make mistakes. City professionals are constantly under stress wherever they work in the organisation. However, despite the challenging nature of their work, and the environment, it is fair to say, that some city professionals thrive in such an environment, while others just about survive. It is unclear of the true impact on long-term health for those who work in a pressure cooker job for extended periods of time, but it cannot be good for you without taking some precautions.
I do have some skin in the game here, I worked in investment banking for more than 2 decades, Square Mile, Canary Wharf, Singapore, Frankfurt and Zurich. Investment banks have a reputation for setting intense expectations on their staff, both explicitly and implicitly.
The Price of Ambition: Banking’s Silent Sacrifices
To the casual observer, one might assume that individuals working in investment banking are driven by relentless ambition and thrive on intense competition and pressure.
This narrative, however, tends to focus primarily on the visible apex of the banking structure, not the entirety of it. The investment banking industry is like an iceberg – there is a visible facade made up of front-office roles – dealmakers, senior bankers, sales professionals, and the executives at the top. The truth is that underneath this surface structure is an expansive support mechanism, which encompasses roles that range from operations, IT, middle office and finance, to trade support, catering, concierge services, security, and more, all of which form the foundation that makes it possible for these businesses to operate and flourish.
Every role in the firm brings its unique set of demands. While some positions maintain a steady rhythm of expectations throughout the week, others might see more dramatic highs and lows.
Certain roles might only require juggling demands that arise directly from their immediate line managers. while other roles may well find themselves shouldering not only their personal workload but also the pressures and demands from other entities within the organisation. Let’s dive a bit deeper into this
Where does banking stress permeate?
Start with the basics, stress is the body’s natural response to a change in demand, signalling a need for adaptation and adjustment to maintain equilibrium. When we talk about demand, we talk about stress, and how we as individuals cope with the demand (stress).
A trader and an IT developer operate within distinct realms of stress and possess varying thresholds for handling it. As we previously mentioned, work-related stress can be absorbed as a constant, from the moment you enter the building to when you leave it at the end of the week on Friday, or experience it in peaks and troughs. For example, when the bank’s trading platform faces an outage, the onus swiftly shifts to the IT team. They bear the brunt of the institution’s anticipations and expectations, both unspoken and articulated. This pressure cascades down from the highest echelons, directing all the way to the junior staff member responsible for executing the update. Stress will cascade from the developer who wrote and tested the code, onto those who sign off testing and then those tasked with implementation. When things go wrong that stress bounce starts from the very bottom, and permeates back up.
Pressure flows down, and explanations (
excuses) flow up.
Most employees in the banking sector are pressure receivers and explanation providers. This is why it is crucial to appreciate wherever you are within the organisation to facilitate some basic mental health maintenance. Where are you on the stress curve? – comment below!
Banking Mental Health Maintenance, what can we learn?
Wake up early
If we are to believe the plethora of books on high achievers, we would be forgiven to think early morning starts are a given character trait for all city working folks. Well for the rank-and-file employee where sleep remains a precious commodity perhaps not, but early starts continue to feature in the recommended must-haves for the already converted.
The idea of waking up early is to get a head start on the day ahead, to be in control of events, not events to be in control of you. Early starts to build additional capacity in your day, creating more time to get work done before the rest of the world wakes up and starts demanding your attention.
By waking up early, motivated people are able to start their day with a sense of calm and focus, which can help them be more productive throughout the day.
Relaxation Strategies Adopted by Captain of Industries
Many captains of industry have turned to various relaxation strategies to manage their mental health and enhance their productivity. Here are a few notable individuals and the strategies they have employed:
- Bill Gates – The co-founder of Microsoft is known to take “think weeks” where he isolates himself in a cabin, devoid of distractions, to read, ponder on different subjects, and to innovate. This practice helps him to refresh his mind and come up with new ideas.
- Oprah Winfrey – Media mogul Oprah Winfrey has been vocal about her daily meditation practice, which she says brings her a sense of contentment and allows her to stay grounded and connected to herself amidst her busy schedule.
- Jeff Bezos – The founder of Amazon prioritizes getting enough sleep, stating that getting eight hours of sleep helps him make better decisions and keeps his stress levels down.
- Arianna Huffington – The founder of The Huffington Post has been a strong advocate for sleep and has even written a book on the subject. She also practices mindfulness and meditation to maintain her mental health.
- Marc Benioff – The CEO of Salesforce is known to practice mindfulness and meditation. He has also incorporated mindfulness spaces in his company’s offices to encourage employees to take breaks and recharge.
- Richard Branson – The founder of the Virgin Group maintains his mental health by ensuring a good work-life balance. He is known to start his day with physical exercise, which he says helps him stay energetic and focused throughout the day.
- Ray Dalio – The founder of Bridgewater Associates practices transcendental meditation, a technique he says has provided him with calmness and an ability to think more clearly, especially in stressful situations.
- Larry Page and Sergey Brin – The co-founders of Google have introduced mindfulness and meditation programs at Google, helping employees reduce stress and enhance creativity.
- Sheryl Sandberg – The COO of Facebook has spoken about the importance of unplugging and taking breaks to avoid burnout and maintain mental health.
Eat a healthy breakfast
We all need to fuel our bodies, in order to stay focused and productive. Eat a healthy balanced breakfast in the morning, to give ourselves the energy to tackle the day ahead. Eat breakfast in the office canteen, at your, on public transport or at your own breakfast table. What’s your pick? comment below
The Relaxation Response ‘Dr Herbert Bensen’
Banking professionals are known to be in detail and have a general knowledge of data. One such source is “The Relaxation Response” a book written by Dr Herbert Benson, a cardiologist and a professor at Harvard Medical School. In this book, Dr. Benson introduces the concept of the “relaxation response,” which is essentially the physiological opposite of the stress-induced fight-or-flight response. Here is a summary of the key points and teachings from the book:
- Introduction to the Relaxation Response: Dr. Benson describes the relaxation response as a physical state of deep relaxation that engages the other part of our automatic response system, the parasympathetic nervous system. It is characterized by decreased heart rate, blood pressure, rate of breathing, and muscle tension.
- Scientific Basis: The book delves into the scientific basis of the relaxation response, explaining how it can counteract the harmful effects of stress. Dr. Benson presents research and clinical studies that demonstrate the health benefits of evoking the relaxation response, including improved heart health and reduced symptoms of anxiety and depression.
- Techniques to Evoke the Relaxation Response: Dr. Benson outlines simple, practical techniques to evoke the relaxation response, including focused breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and meditation. He emphasizes that the techniques are easy to learn and can be incorporated into daily life to help manage stress effectively.
- Mind-Body Connection: The book explores the mind-body connection, illustrating how mental processes can influence physical health. Dr. Benson argues that understanding and utilizing the relaxation response can foster better health and well-being by mitigating the adverse effects of stress on the body.
- Applications in Medical Treatment: Dr. Benson discusses the potential applications of the relaxation response in medical treatment. He suggests that it can be a valuable adjunct to conventional medical treatments for various health issues, including hypertension, heart disease, insomnia, anxiety, and chronic pain.
- Personal Stories and Experiences: Throughout the book, Dr. Benson shares personal stories and experiences of individuals who have successfully used relaxation response techniques to improve their health and well-being. These anecdotes illustrate the practical benefits of incorporating these techniques into one’s lifestyle.
- Guidance for Practitioners: The latter part of the book provides guidance for practitioners looking to integrate relaxation response techniques into their practice. It offers insights into how healthcare professionals can use these techniques to help patients manage stress and improve outcomes in various medical settings.
Exercise and physical activity
It is no secret that regular exercise can help reduce stress and improve overall well-being. Many bankers make it a point to work out or engage in physical activity on a regular basis, whether it’s going for a run, hitting the gym, or other active team-driven sports. Exercise not only helps reduce stress, but it can also boost energy levels and improve mood, which can be especially helpful during long workdays.
There is no shortage of gyms in London’s square mile, from fully-fledged gym & spa membership complexes to boxing gyms. Take a stroll through London’s financial district and you will often see the runners out dispelling the myth that not everyone remains desk-bound, round the clock.
Disengage from city-driven media outside of work
One found solace in stopping reading city material on the commute to and from work and putting a big cross through it on weekends too, in order to grab back more downtime from the office. This particular fellow used to read Merger and Acquisition papers and then had a thought, I don’t even work in M&A, turning to novel reading instead. The takeaway is not to underestimate the mind remaining in the office when consuming relatable type content.
Seeking Therapy, even though we are not American
This advice is also shared with anyone who works in the ‘pressure cooker’, they should not hesitate to seek support from therapy (contact here if you are interested), when things are feeling too much and overwhelmed. Talking through concerns and feelings with someone can help them feel less alone and more in control. Therapy can work on several domains tied to reducing and coping with stress and anxiety, as well as learning the skills of Mindfulness (also on the list below), and super-deep levels of relaxation through Hypnosis and the learning of the art of self-hypnosis.
One particular benefit of therapy is understanding the work and life balance, from another perspective
Bohangar City Practice stands as a testament to the transformative power of Cognitive Behavioral Hypnotherapy (CBH), founded by a former investment banking analyst with two decades of experience in the high-pressure financial sector. This individual not only survived but thrived, using relaxation and mindfulness techniques to manage stress and anxiety effectively. Transitioning from a successful banking career, the founder became a qualified cognitive behavioural hypnotherapist, driven by a personal journey of overcoming workplace challenges through the strategic application of relaxation techniques. The practice leverages this rich background to offer therapies grounded in real-world experiences, providing clients with not just theoretical knowledge, but practical strategies honed in the demanding corporate environment.
At the heart of the Bohangar City Practice is a deep understanding of the corporate landscape, coupled with a certified expertise in CBH, a holistic approach that combines cognitive behavioural therapy and hypnosis to facilitate deep, transformative change. The founder’s unique perspective, carved from years in the investment banking sector, allows for a therapy that is both empathetic and grounded in reality, offering more than just therapy, but a roadmap to mental well-being. It is a sanctuary where individuals learn to navigate the complexities of the corporate world with a grounded, centred approach, fostering mental clarity and resilience through proven relaxation strategies and skills.
Mindfulness and Meditation
Mindfulness and meditation are powerful tools for managing stress and improving mental clarity. these techniques can help stay focused and calm in the midst of a hectic workday. By taking a few minutes each day to practice mindfulness or meditation, improvements to the ability to concentrate, reduce stress, and improve overall well-being, are notable outcomes. A very early adopter of mindfulness in the workplace, i.e. early 1980s Steve Jobs, prepared before taking the stage at what would one day transform into the Apple product showcase events. Side thought, does anyone remember where they were when the iPad was showcased, it was a great relaxed pitch, that sold a compelling vision.
Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn is a prominent figure in the world of mindfulness and stress reduction, holding a PhD in molecular biology from MIT and later founding the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He is renowned for developing the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, a groundbreaking approach that integrates mindfulness meditation to aid people in dealing with stress, pain, and illness. Kabat-Zinn’s teachings emphasize being present in the moment, encouraging individuals to cultivate a heightened awareness of their own bodies, thoughts, and surroundings. By doing so, one can foster a deeper connection with oneself, promoting mental clarity and a sense of calm, essential tools in the high-pressure environment of investment banking Stress.
Learning from Dr. Kabat-Zinn can be a transformative experience, especially for professionals in the banking sector constantly grappling with high-stress situations. His MBSR program teaches individuals to approach challenges with a calm and focused mind, a skill that can be particularly beneficial in the fast-paced world of banking where decisions often need to be made swiftly and under pressure. Moreover, Kabat-Zinn encourages the practice of mindfulness meditation, a technique that involves sitting quietly and paying attention to your breath, bodily sensations, and thoughts without judgment. This practice can be a daily sanctuary for bankers, a space to unwind and detach from the whirlwind of demands and pressures, fostering not only a reduction in stress but also enhancing overall well-being and productivity. By adopting Kabat-Zinn’s teachings, investment bankers can learn to navigate the turbulent waters of their profession with grace and resilience, turning to mindfulness as a steady anchor in their hectic lives.
Steve Jobs and Mindfulness
Steve Jobs, who co-founded Apple Inc., was a notable proponent of mindfulness practices. Leveraging mindfulness techniques allowed him to hone his focus, temper adverse energies, and inspire his teams to reach unparalleled heights of excellence. His deep dive into the world of mindful meditation began in 1974, following a transformative journey to India. Jobs held a firm conviction that mindfulness could be a tool to diminish stress, foster clarity, and unlock higher levels of creativity². Discover more about the mindfulness routines of Steve Jobs here.
Not only Investment bankers, but anyone juggling multiple tasks and deadlines, if tasks are left unorganised and without a system, the task list will eventually become overwhelming. To manage workload and reduce stress, the key takeaway from our friendly bankers is to prioritise tasks and create a daily to-do list, by breaking down tasks into smaller chunks, and more manageable tasks. Never have tasks that bleed over into a new 24-hour cycle, become in control of the task list, and not be led by it. Protect the list as precious as water is to life, taking control helps workload and reduces stress.
Support networks and socialising
Investment banking can be a lonely job, and tips such as relying on external support networks to help cope with stress were almost at the top of the list. This might include family members, friends, or colleagues who understand the demands of the job and can provide emotional support when needed. Having a strong support network can help stay motivated and resilient in the face of stress. It was also pointed out, that those in your networks not involved in the industry have more of a software external view of just how much of a pressure cooker the office can actually be, but that’s okay, it’s your decision to work in the sector.
Socialising with work colleagues is an investment and can pay dividends in all sorts of ways, however from a mental health point of view, the balance needs to be found to have an off switch, from work and to disengage from all that is connected
Hobbies and interests
Life outside of work with the cultivation of outside interests allows for relaxation and recharge. Whether it’s playing a musical instrument, painting, or participating in team sports commitment, having a hobby can provide a much-needed break from the demands of work and help reduce stress.
Before you reach for the comment section I have no time for this, the general
In conclusion, investment banking is a demanding and stressful career, but there are a number of strategies that bankers can use to manage stress and maintain their performance over the long term. Investment bankers can stay motivated, resilient, and successful in their careers by prioritising their physical and mental health, cultivating a strong support network, and pursuing hobbies and interests outside of work.