The Best-Kept Secret on Wall Street Might Be ... Therapy
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because binge-drinking and debauchery are a problem in a major U.S. sector.
By Farah Halime
Despite earning six figures and living in a swanky Manhattan apartment when he worked as a banker for a major financial firm, Dan (who didn’t want his last name public) was under immense pressure and was swimming in a toxic work environment. At one point, he even sought therapy. But there was no way in hell he’d ever tell one of his colleagues — past or present — about getting help, for fear of being seen as weak. “Everybody knows everybody,” says Dan, who quit finance and moved to Southeast Asia. “There’s too much at risk.”
It’s been six years since the global financial crisis sent heart rates soaring, but that was just the beginning for some traders, bankers and financial analysts, whose stress levels are still high. More is being demanded of them due to ongoing job cuts on Wall Street, and concerns are growing over the plummeting price of oil, deflation and increasingly volatile stock markets. Therapists say they’ve been seeing a growing number of financial pros and are trying to find them different coping strategies, including group therapy sessions.
It’s no different from what happens on the trading floor — they get the same thrill from these illicit activities.
Sure, bankers and other financial types haven’t generated much sympathy from many folks who saw their savings plunge following the stock market crash in 2008. And plenty of people across other sectors are feeling strained too. According to the American Psychological Association, issues related to money and work continue to be the most common stressors for adults in the U.S. In fact, 78 percent of people say their stress level has increased or stayed the same over the past five years. Even more — 84 percent — say the same about the past year.
But the grind of working in the high-octane world of finance has recently taken a toll and contributed to serious issues like suicide, panic attacks and high blood pressure, not to mention — for men primarily — binge-drinking and, as The Wolf of Wall Street showed, what some experts simply call bad behavior. “There is a lot of use of prostitution and strippers,” says Jonathan Alpert, a New York-based psychotherapist who counts close to half his clients as Wall Street financiers. “On a neurological level, it’s no different from what happens on the trading floor — they get the same thrill from these illicit activities.”
Not that you’ll hear Wall Streeters dishing about their sessions on a therapist’s chaise lounge over the watercooler. It’s not something that is widely acknowledged or even tracked among the industry groups that oversee therapists. Yet part of what has been driving people to seek help, experts say, is working within the financial industry during a massive shift, as banks become more risk-averse and trim jobs in the process. As many as 200,000 Wall Street employees lost their jobs in 2011, Bloomberg data show, eclipsing the 174,000 jobs lost in the aftermath of the financial crisis. At least 40,000 more were cut last year.
At the same time, responsibilities of multiple bankers sometimes get loaded onto just one person, while bonuses have recently been trimmed and still fall well below pre-recession levels. That’s led to greater financial pressures, which cracked many marriages during the recession. “The money situation got scary,” says Anne Ziff, clinical assistant professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and a New York-based therapist. She saw divorce rates hit between 30 and 40 percent among her clients and is now creating a group therapy program for those in the financial industry.
On top of the financial pressure, all the rosy news of late about the number of new jobs that have been added in the U.S. doesn’t always capture the fact that some financial professionals were let go after the ’08 crash and never found new positions in the same field or of the same caliber. “Their identities are fused with their career, so when they lost their jobs, they were left aimless and deeply depressed, not knowing who they were, not knowing they were more than a banker,” says Alpert.
My stress levels were just huge, and my coping mechanisms were not great …
To some degree, the most extreme pressures faced by financial professionals are cyclical — dependent on when markets surge or sink or when other world events rock Wall Street to its core. For Alison Crosthwait, who used to work with the equities division for Goldman Sachs in New York, everything changed after 9/11. The emotional distress from that event — plus the added responsibility from her job — became too much. “My stress levels were just huge, and my coping mechanisms were not great: My diet was horrific, and I drank too much, and that is very normalized in the business,” she says.
After a career in capital markets that spanned 15 years, Crosthwait started over — as a psychotherapist. Today she works out of Toronto with Bay Streeters, as financial pros there are known, but notes there’s a lot of stigma associated with the work she does now. “It’s a very hidden thing,” says Crosthwait.