Stress in the City

As the City of London confronts financial meltdown, Leslie Chapman explores the impact on mental health of working in such a competitive environment

Stress in the City

by Leslie Chapman

The bankers and traders who work in the UK’s financial heartland, the City of London and its adjunct Canary Wharf, are unlikely to win much public sympathy for its ill effects on their psychological wellbeing. Nevertheless, there is growing evidence that a mental health crisis is emerging in this heartland that mirrors the current economic one. Although hard evidence is scant, there is a great deal of anecdotal evidence, mainly from media articles and blogs, to suggest that mental ill health in the City is a significant problem, and a growing one. According to a recent Health and Safety Executive report, some 18,000 employees in UK financial and insurance services reported work-related stress, depression or anxiety in the 12 months up to November 2011.1 

This article will outline some of the issues that are emerging that link working in the City and mental ill health. However this is essentially work in progress, due to the rapidly changing economic situation and also because there is currently a dearth of research in this area. My hope is that this article will prompt further discussion, feedback and more research. First, a brief word about my methodology. The above-mentioned lack of books and research papers specifically on mental health problems in the City means that I have had to rely largely on newspaper articles and media blogs. There is one notable book on the subject: Michael Sinclair’s Fear and Self-Loathing in the City,2 a self-help ‘guide to keeping sane in the Square Mile’, to which I shall refer a number of times. Another key source of information has been Joris Luyendijk’s online Banking Blog, on the Guardian website. This is a series of interviews he conducted with City workers, and their partners, as part of an anthropological study over a nine month period, starting in September 2011.3

Mental health in the City
My main argument is that there are two dimensions to mental ill health in the City. The first relates to a range of mental health problems that seem to be on the increase. The second relates to the culture within which these problems are emerging – a culture I would describe as psychologically toxic. 

In his book Sinclair, a chartered psychologist who practises in the City, describes the range of issues presented to him by his clients. They include anxiety, depression, eating disorders, drug and alcohol abuse and depersonalisation. 

Sinclair argues that behind many of these specific problems is a more general fear of failure, and often a strong sense of self-loathing. He links this to a desire by many City workers to be perfectionists and to always be in control. When they cannot live up to these standards, they feel a failure and useless and this, he believes, is often linked to a fear of rejection and being unloved. A number of Sinclair’s clients, he reports, had childhoods where they were not allowed to express their feelings and were not taken seriously. 

This analysis is apparent from one of Luyendijk’s interviews, with a former mergers and acquisitions banker:

‘My sense is that the majority of the people in finance have an urge to prove themselves. And banks offer a platform where they can do so. I feel there’s a particular kind of insecurity to many bankers, a form of neediness and a deep desire to compensate. Love? Many people in banking try to project an image of perfection, and banks play to that, trying to make you look perfect and feel invulnerable. It’s very easy to get hooked to that life, to become addicted to work and the money. I am sure it would have happened to me, had I done this work for too long.’4 

Interestingly, however, Sinclair specifically does not include ‘stress’ in the list of conditions with which his clients commonly present. Stress, he argues, is a blanket term that hides a range of psychological problems:

‘On many occasions, during psychological therapy, I have heard people express themselves as “feeling stressed” when they are actually angry, depressed or anxious. As one patient put it: “I would rather own up to feeling a bit stressed than telling everyone I suffer from depression.” Although almost one in four people in the UK suffers from depression or anxiety, there is still a massive stigma associated with these mental health conditions. Therefore, being “stressed” is seen as far more acceptable than being “depressed”.’2

Sinclair is touching on a wider issue here: the fact that, in the City, admitting to having a mental health problem is strictly taboo and could be a death sentence to your career and job prospects. This is something I will explore in more detail below. 

A toxic culture
There appears to be a complete disregard in the City environment for the wider human and social consequences of working there: its impact on the traders, bankers, hedge fund managers and other financial workers. The focus is on amassing as much wealth as possible, with a high level of competition in terms of bonuses and other ‘perks’ of the job. Luyendijk interviewed the former girlfriend of a City banker, who pityingly described her former boyfriend’s drive to compete with his fellow workers:

‘He’d call me up from New York, all cheery that his company put him in a double suite two floors higher than his peer which meant they’d spent $200 more… on him.’5

Rather more worryingly, perhaps, there is a growing body of research suggesting that psychopathic personalities thrive in this kind of corporate environment. Some even argue that organisations themselves can be psychopathic. Boddy,6 for example, in an overview of ‘organisational psychopathy’, argues that many of the characteristics of a psychopath – for example, appearing outwardly charming, mixing easily with people, being an accomplished liar, cheater and manipulator, and having a craving for power – are all, broadly, criteria for a diagnosis of psychopathic personality disorder, and are all qualities necessary to rapid progression in many corporations, which would include banks and other financial institutions. 

It is very much a dog-eat-dog culture, where workers have little or no empathy for others. Interviewed on the AsiaOne website, Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University, makes explicit reference to a ‘survival of the fittest’ culture, where those who cannot keep up risk losing their job:7

‘The majority of people working the financial sector would not admit to not coping because it could mean they are highly vulnerable to job loss.’ 

One example of the ruthlessness of this culture is the way people are fired – quickly and often with little warning. To quote an employee relations officer in a major bank, interviewed by Luyendijk:

‘When the call comes, people know right away. We may use the most innocent tone of voice when we say: “Hi, could you pop up to the 20th floor for a moment?” They know better: you never get an unexpected call from that person, except …’8

She goes on to explain how even those employees who put in tremendously long hours are at risk from the new people coming in behind them: 

‘You can’t just stay as good as you are, you have to get better all the time because the new people are constantly getting better. People don’t realise this and then one day comes the phone call from the 20th floor. We had this disciplinary case where we pulled the guy’s access files. Turned out he had been in the office every day from 9am till 12pm. All weekends, he worked Christmas Eve, he worked New Year’s Eve… That’s so sad.’8

The banker’s former girlfriend previously quoted describes the almost physical impact of this fear:

‘There was the year when his bonus was really quite low; the bank had had a tough year. He was almost physically hurting, you could tell, as if somebody had punched him in the chest. I do know for a fact that he is actually terrified of losing his job in a new crisis. I wonder if everyone in the industry has that secret fear.’5

Needless to say, this kind of a culture can wreak havoc on a City worker’s personal life and relationships, especially if their partner has a different outlook on life and is not immersed in City culture. 

Looking back, the former mergers and acquisitions analyst described his own experience thus: 

‘As a young banker… you have no social life, I mean, none. A work week has seven days. There’s no time for friends, and when you have a few hours off, you try to maximise it. Drink really hard, party wild, and you get confronted with drugs – which seems to be a taboo although many do it. You need to feel in those few moments that you’re still alive. On Sundays, following one of these binges, I would wake up feeling so rotten, so empty. I used to be the kind of person who enjoys life, who gets up in the morning eager for another day. The past two years I found myself changing. I lost my interest in politics, in sports… I began to wonder: what’s happening to me? My flatmate is in finance too. I’ve seen him coming home crying, from exhaustion, from something that happened to him.’4

The banker’s ex-girlfriend described herself as ‘too dangerous’ because her values differed from and challenged those of her boyfriend’s City culture:

‘He is now back with his former girlfriend, the one he had been with for a very long time, before meeting me. He told me, “I can’t have a girlfriend who doesn’t know what she wants”. I was too bohemian for him, too dangerous, confronting, too flaky. The girl he’s gone back to is more accustomed to living the “rich life”. She understands the importance of status better and will probably be much better at encouraging him in his career.’5

Mental illness: a no-go area?
Even though mental health problems are reported as widely prevalent in the City, and despite the fact that the whole City culture itself could be regarded as ‘psychologically toxic’ or ‘psychopathological’, there appears to be a widespread sense of denial that such problems exist. 

As a number of commentators have pointed out, the City environment is a ‘macho’ culture where only the fittest survive, and takes a very dim view of mental health problems. Whipple, writing in The Times, highlights the ‘taboo’ nature of mental ill health in the City.9 He refers to Sinclair’s views on this subject and also cites Neil Brener, a City-based consultant psychiatrist specialising in this field, who uses the metaphor of being ‘outside of the winner’s enclosure’ to describe how people who admit to having a mental problem are viewed in the City environment. 

Sinclair also talks about the stigma attached to mental health problems, especially in the City environment. Many of his clients would rather have a physical illness than admit to being depressed, anxious, stressed or having some other psychological problem. 

Although such views are by no means restricted to the City, they appear to be somewhat more pronounced within this culture. Perhaps one reason is that mental health problems are perceived to undermine the core values of this environment. These values are succinctly described by one of Luyendijk’s interviewees, a public relations officer in a brokerage company: 

‘To succeed in the City as a top banker, you need five things. First of all, you need a first-class education. Then you must have a craving for money, to think money is really very important. You also need lots of testosterone, meaning you must feel this need to win, to rip the skin off somebody else’s face if necessary. Then you must have a deep need for control, of your position in the market, of your colleagues, of your clients, of your competitors… Discipline is important, given the hours you make and the pressure you’re under.’10

Given that this is what many might regard as a highly dysfunctional, pathological culture, it is ironic that those who are unable to cope end up being stigmatised and ejected from the prized ‘enclosure’. However, whatever the reason, the culture of denial means that treating such problems – at an individual and collective level – and encouraging people to seek help presents a major challenge for mental health practitioners. 

A suitable case for treatment?
The hours in the City can be very long but the rewards are astronomical – up to (and sometimes beyond) £1 million a year plus bonuses of up to 300 per cent for senior executives. 

But it isn’t just the money that attracts people, although recent research by the St Paul’s Institute suggests that it is a major incentive.11 Many of the people interviewed by Luyendijk said that they loved their work, and this is borne out by the client cases presented in Sinclair’s book. Most of the people he discusses were not looking for a way out of the City, and nor did they seem motivated by money alone. They came to him for therapy so that they could function better at work and not feel so bad about themselves. 

A banker’s wife, interviewed by Luyendijk, had also worked in the financial sector and understood the pressures and the pay-backs:

‘… I know what it’s like for him. I used to work at a “magic circle” [top UK] law firm myself. I have pulled all-nighters, worked till one at night for weeks on end. I remember exactly how it works, how you become one with the team, this feeling of: we’re going to do this, and we are going to win because we are the best.’12

This raises another important point: therapists such as Sinclair do not see it as their role to encourage their clients to question the culture in which they are working, and which may be a major factor in their distress. In fact, Sinclair argues explicitly that, in his view, the working culture is not the problem:

‘Many of my patients complain about the pressures of work. In many cases, it is the work culture that demands that they work late, and avoid taking lunch breaks, or days off. It is almost that the workplace doesn’t allow for human emotion. However, in spite of how we feel about our working culture, it is more about how we manage our own experience that counts.’2

This is not to suggest that it is the role of a therapist to necessarily encourage their clients to question their environment. However, it seems somewhat naive to argue that the kind of culture I have been describing is not a major contributing factor to a person’s mental distress. Furthermore, I would suggest that Sinclair’s approach, which is broadly based on CBT, actively encourages clients not to explore how the external environment is affecting their lives. Rather, its aim is to help clients adapt their thought patterns so they can work more harmoniously within such an environment. 

I have touched only briefly on a number of important issues, but I hope to have provided at least a flavour of some of the psychological and social problems that pervade the UK’s financial heartland. In summing up, I would argue that the City is a psychological disaster waiting to happen; indeed, there are strong indications that such a disaster is already happening. What is particularly worrying, from a therapeutic point of view at least, is the apparent level of complacency, or even denial, about the damaging effects on mental health of working in this environment. 

Practitioners such as Michael Sinclair and Neil Brener are undoubtedly seeking to help the casualties of the City culture. However, there are serious questions to be asked about the extent to which, by choosing to ignore the psychological toxicity of the environment within which their clients are living and working, they are colluding in sustaining such a culture.

Leslie Chapman is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist in private practice, based in central London, north Hampshire and west Surrey. His clinical training and background is in Lacanian psychoanalysis. His interests include psychosis, corporate psychopathology and evidence-based practice. He is a member of the BACP and a clinical associate of the Centre for Freudian Analysis and Research.