LONDON (Reuters) - Increased volatility grips stock markets, big investment banks tot up losses from a credit market seizure and jobs are slashed -- being a trader has seldom been more stressful.
Since a stock market bull run came to a grinding halt last year and as the crisis has magnified by the week, occupational psychologists who help stressed-out traders and bankers now fear a higher cost than mere write-downs: suicide.
“There is a great sense of urgency and anxiety around the City since the onset of the credit crunch and the economic problems unfolding,” said Michael Sinclair, a consultant psychologist who has two London practices including one in the financial district, and estimates City workers account for 95 percent of his clients.
Even as hopes build that the worst may be over, professional investors fear the markets’ seizure carries real dangers that have not been seen for decades -- perhaps as far back as the Great Depression triggered by the 1929 Wall Street crash.
Where Canary Wharf’s imposing concrete towers and loud bars usually exude confidence and wealth, now the mood is claustrophobic. On commuter trains, workers openly speculate about which team members will be culled.
“People are unable to jump ship as their usual coping mechanism,” said Sinclair. “A lot of underlying insecurities come to the surface, around self-esteem and self worth, and -- yes -- there has been an increase in suicides.”
No up-to-date statistics are available for occupation-specific suicides in the United Kingdom and according to the Office for National Statistics, suicides have been fairly stable at about 1 percent of adult deaths in 2006.
But on anecdotal evidence, psychologists paint a darker picture, saying the recent surge in financial sector employees’ stress is only the culmination of years living on the edge.
“There are increasing demands on people in the City,” said Neil Brener, a psychiatrist at North London’s Priory Hospital -- famous for treating burnt-out celebrities -- who practices in four different sites including London’s “square mile” financial district and Canary Wharf.
”Everyone loves a winner in the City -- it is a place that thrives on people being successful and there is always a degree of pressure to be successful, produce the goods and deliver.
“I have certainly had more referrals over the years. A complete range of problems -- from people with major drug or alcohol problems, anxiety disorders -- it is very difficult to typify the City worker problem.”
Historians say market players today are generally more resilient and better supported than in 1929, when individuals were largely gambling with their own wealth and the crash spelt bankruptcy.
Tales of traders throwing themselves out of windows on Wall Street in the wake of 1929 were essentially myths, as noted by John Kenneth Galbraith in his 1955 account of the crash. But in finance in recent years, some deaths have been notable.
Three employees at Societe Generale in Paris have committed suicide in as many years, prompting unions to raise concerns over the stressful environment at the bank.
The most recent was last June, when an equity derivatives trader in his 30s threw himself off a highway bridge near the bank’s head office.
A Credit Suisse employee fell to his death from the Park Lane Hilton in late 2007, and the coroner’s officer blamed work pressures.
Two Citigroup workers -- including a trader -- fell from office blocks in London and Miami in 2006.
“The pressure on traders when the market goes wrong is always huge,” said Tim Leunig, a lecturer in the economic history department at London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). “There will be a lot of bitten fingernails today. It is exactly the same -- you can lose you job, your standard of living and you won’t get it back ... that’s pressure.”
A global stress survey published in March by hereisthecity.com -- a website for financial markets professionals -- showed nearly two-thirds of respondents felt more stressed than they had six months ago.
The site, which attracts about 167,000 unique visitors per month and was established in 2002 by publisher and former banker Vic Daniels, received e-mailed answers to its survey from over 3,000 people.
But fewer than half said they were actively trying to manage their stress and nearly 70 percent said they were exhibiting three or more of the following signs: trouble sleeping, escaping through drinking more, decreased appetite, inability to concentrate, general loss of productivity, getting sick more, short temper, more frequent bad moods, isolating oneself from friends and family and general apathy.
The site also published a “stressed-out bankers’ firm league table,” which asked current employees how they rated their employers. Bear Stearns and Morgan Stanley topped it.
“It can only be really taken in the context of recent events rather than the general day-to-day working life at Bear,” a spokeswoman at Bear Stearns said in response to the survey. “It is almost purely a reflection of the fact that we’re in the process of being acquired by JPMorgan.”
Bear, which until recently ranked as the fifth-largest U.S. investment bank, suffered a liquidity crisis as declining confidence prompted a run on the bank.
Morgan Stanley declined to comment on the survey.
Higher stress levels are forcing banks to boost their employee health services as more staff seek professional advice.
Bear provides a specialist stress consultancy which offers advice, training or counseling for all its employees.
In September last year, Citi launched a Canary Wharf health care centre, with a staff of 20 including a nurse, GP, dentist, masseur, chiropodist, chiropractor and occupational health adviser who arranges social, medical and psychological treatments.
“It’s not psychiatrists versus the banks,” said the Priory’s Brener. “It’s much better to help them and try and sort out the problems in the workplace than people going off sick for long periods of time.”
The best way to avoid stress is to maintain a balance in and outside of working life, experts say. “Choose and find methods that are appropriate to reduce stress,” Brener added.
“Not using drugs or alcohol as a method: (instead) exercise, doing things you enjoy away from the office space.”
Editing by Sara Ledwith