The Great Depression: Mental Health in the Financial Services Sector

Mental illness is a globally rampant epidemic.

With nearly 450 million people living with a mental illness around the world, severe cases can result in suicide — which is now among the top three leading causes of death among males and females aged 15–44.

But mental illness is a complex social issue. Health care, incarceration, education, poverty, and gun control are all directly related to mental health, but perhaps the most tangible and widespread aspect is mental well-being within the workplace.

According to the World Health Organization, there is an estimated cost of $1 trillion USD per year in lost productivity to the global economy as a result of mental illness within the workplace. The issue is exacerbated by the long-running stigma surrounding mental health problems and a lack of understanding of their causes, prevention methods, and treatments.

This problem is not created equal. Certain jobs and work environments are more prone to risk factors that increase the chance for developing mental illnesses. For example, professionals in the financial services sector are often stereotyped to be the most likely to commit suicide, highlighted by the idea of the “banker 9–5”: working from 9AM to 5AM the next day. Given the increasingly high demand for these jobs, mental illness in financial service jobs is an especially alarming case for the need to explore and improve workplace well-being.

Why write this article?

In 2018, it seems that we are finally starting to have greater coverage and conversation about mental illness. The APA has only recently categorized major depressive disorder as a real and recognized mental illness. School boards across the country are now implementing wellness campaigns to promote better mental health in schools.

Yet, as I think we all know, this conversation is far from perfect, and far from being done. When the majority of America spends most of their time in the office, yet there is little to no investment in solving workplace depression, there is a problem.

It’s not like spending more money to promote better mental health would hurt the profits of a business either. In fact, a World Health Organization study estimated that for every $1 put into treating mental disorders, there is an ROI of $4 in improved health and productivity.

So why don’t businesses solve this if it helps their profits? The simple truth is that no one wants to admit that this issue is so prevalent. As we will examine throughout this article, employees cover up their condition to avoid getting fired, and companies actively avoid hiring the mentally ill.

The stereotypes are real: what mental health looks like in the financial industry

Depression and anxiety are collectively a growing problem in the financial industry. A major part of the problem is the lack of information available regarding the number of workers with these conditions. Steven Stack, a professor of criminal justice at West Virginia University, acknowledges that while suicides within the financial services sector are highly publicized, there exists little knowledge in the subject relative to other nations, such as the UK and Denmark. The lack of research in the United States, among other nations, illustrates the currently indifferent and lagging attitude to learn more about and improve employee mental well-being.

Of the information known, collected in years of which research was funded and data is available — 1999, 2003, 2004, and 2007 — there were 329 suicides among financial specialists in the US, second only to the much broader group of “engineers and scientists”; this figure grew to 359 in 2015 alone. In addition, those in banking positions, ranging from “investment advisers to brokers to traders to investment bankers”, were 39% more likely to commit suicide than the workplace as a whole.

While other occupations, such as those in the legal and construction industry, have higher numbers of suicides, suicide statistics do not account for more insidious impacts of mental health issues. Risk factors are notoriously bad in financial service jobs and are responsible for innumerable cases of depression and anxiety.

However, the ultimate goal is not to point fingers at which industry has it the worst; instead, leaders in the workplace should be positive and forward thinking. There must be an overall shift in attitudes towards employee well-being, targeting the causes of mental illness rather than the symptoms. And financial services, as an industry known for its stressful work environment, could be the sector to spearhead the movement for improvement.

Why is this issue so pervasive?

While work can be good for mental health, a variety of work-related risk factors can subject workers to substantial adverse effects on employee mental well-being. Risk factors within the workplace include a negative environment pervaded by harassment and bullying, poor communication between employees and management, limited participation and control over work, and inflexible working hours.

Many of these risk factors are widespread and severe within financial industry workplaces. Professor Alexandra Michel at the University of Southern California conducted a nine year-long study researching the work habits of groups of investment bankers at two large US banks. She found that 120-hour work weeks for bankers were typical, and that none of her subjects ever worked fewer than 80 hours per week in the nine years.

On top of this, employees had to be available 24 hours a day, every day, via cell phone or PDA. As a result of the fast-paced, high-pressure, and highly competitive nature of the work, the workplace for bankers became a brewing ground for stress and potential mental health issues. Over time, Michel’s research showed that sleep and health collapsed, with common reports of insomnia and depression. The finance workers also reported relying on alcohol and drugs as relief from the pressure, stress and fatigue of their work.

In addition to the demands of the job, the attitude and overall atmosphere of the industry create a toxic and hostile work environment. Christopher Harress of the International Business Times comments how the intense shame of failure that bankers feel is not surprising “in a cutthroat industry” filled with the “world’s sharpest minds, recruited from hypercompetitive business schools”.

Dr. Michael Sinclair, managing director of City Psychology Group in New York City, discusses how financial workers commonly feel the need to keep their condition private. He reports that the “fear of being labelled as having depression, or having it going on record, is something they feel, in a highly competitive environment, will affect their employment opportunities in the future”. This also illustrates the existing stigma attached to mental health issues in the financial sector. While illegal for banks to discriminate against depressed employees, they often find a way to create barriers to entry. This idea is illustrated in a 2009 study by organization Mind and Rethink Mental Illness, in which banking was listed as the worst industry for discriminating against people with a history of mental illness. Almost half of respondents in the sector reported to be against hiring the mentally ill.

Case study: Wells Fargo

Certain working situations even further worsen the risk factors for the mental health of financial service workers. Such is the case with the ongoing Wells Fargo account fraud scandal, in which the bank admitted to creating two million fraudulent credit card and bank accounts.

In an environment that rewarded creating more fraudulent accounts, the pressure of watching colleagues get lucrative bonuses and promotions through unethical practices severely impacted the mental state of dozens of Wells Fargo workers.

Lisa Skipton, a mortgage worker at Wells Fargo, experienced “bullying, punishment and intimidation” from her managers for not meeting sales expectations; the harassment she faced damaged her mental health and led her to quit.

“It was the most degrading place to work. Although I have been away from Wells Fargo for years, I still feel sick to my stomach every time I drive by a Wells Fargo branch.” — Lisa Skipton

But her abuse was not hers alone. Another Wells Fargo worker, Jeremy Mohr felt “ridiculous pressure” to hit “unreasonable sales goals” and eventually lost his job for complying with a fraudulent customer interaction. Soon after, he fell into depression and attempted suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning as a result of losing his job.

Even managers suffered from the scandal: Susan Fischer, a branch manager in Arizona, also experienced severe depression and anxiety from having to instruct workers to open unauthorized accounts in 2007. After taking medical leave from the stress, she resigned the following year.

It should be clear that this is not an issue unique to Wells Fargo. Every corporation across the country surely has employees who suffer from similar conditions.

To end this article, I want to make clear that this is not an essay.

This is not a soapbox, one-way dialogue. The purpose here is to spark a conversation.

So, please, continue this topic with others. Ask your friends about their experiences in the work place. If you are an employee, speak out to your employers and create the change that is so, so necessary. If you are an employer, don’t pull the covers over your eyes — watch.

Learn the conditions of your workplace.

Talk to those who work for you.

Listen.


This was first of a two-part series in which I discuss mental illness within financial service jobs. In part two I will be discussing a proposal for a potential solution.