Note to Junior Bankers: Stress Can Be Good

An HSBC Holdings Plc contractor named Jonathan Frostick recently wrote an introspective post on LinkedIn about surviving a heart attack. What was striking about the item is that upon experiencing chest pains, Frostick immediately thought not of his wife and family, but how inconvenient it was given all the outstanding projects he had left to finish for HSBC.

The post struck a nerve – – receiving, at last count, 240,000 reactions on the social media platform – because it spoke to the hard-charging culture of Wall Street at a time when Wall Street is doing a lot of soul-searching about how much is too much when it comes to the workloads of its employees, especially its junior bankers. A presentation put together by 13 first-year analysts in Goldman Sachs Group Inc. investment-banking group that made the rounds in March complained about 100-hour work weeks and a deterioration in their physical and mental health. The latest example comes this week from UBS, which sent out a memo to remind employees that they are entitled to a “Wellness Hour” each day. Some banks have promised to hire more associates to help spread the load.

I was a trader at Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. during the 2000s, running the second-largest exchange-traded fund trading desk on Wall Street in terms of market share. I wrote a book about my experiences and my struggles with mental health (I battled bipolar disorder and was hospitalized for a time, which is hereditary and not a result of my work.)  I also had fairly severe obsessive-compulsive disorder, which was a result of my work, and the associated anxiety. When I left Lehman, the OCD mostly went away.

Traders don’t work the hours that bankers do, but the work is much more intense. My time on the trading floor was characterized by lots of screaming and yelling, breathtaking amounts of risk, having trades getting picked off by much faster hedge funds, and getting so angry that I would shake uncontrollably multiple times a day. When Lehman went bankrupt in 2008 and I was suddenly out of  job, every cell in my body told me that I could not work another day. I had burned out.

And yet, I wouldn’t have changed a thing.

I started at Lehman in 2001 in the associate training class for new MBAs. It was not too dissimilar from the experience that Michael Lewis chronicled in his best-selling book titled Liar’s Poker. We sat and listened to presentations from all the different businesses in the firm, so we could be better informed about which one we would seek to work in. 

One day, we heard a presentation from a senior employee in foreign-exchange research. The new associate sitting next to me interrupted the speaker and asked, “Is your job stressful?” It was an odd question to ask at an investment bank.

The presenter thought about it for a moment, and replied, “We are all here to feel a little stress.” I thought that was a deeply profound thing to say. Life isn’t about the avoidance of stress; when we feel stress, we experience personal growth. When we push ourselves to our limits, and we come out the other side, we flourish. An absence of stress means an absence of growth.

This is the philosophy of the U.S. military, or at least it was back in the early 1990s. I entered the United States Coast Guard Academy out of high school.  I went through “Swab Summer,” the Coast Guard’s version of basic training, where the goal was to break people down and build them back up. Having been a wrestler in high school, I was physically prepared for what was going to happen, but I was not prepared for the psychological stress. But I made it through, and came out a better person. And, yes, I had my share of 100-hour workweeks while out to sea, with round-the-clock operations, drills, and watchstanding.

There has always been a culture of hard work in finance. The 2001 book Monkey Business: Swinging Through the Wall Street Jungle chronicled the lives of a couple of young DLJ bankers during the dot-com bubble. In addition to being very funny, it describes some of the things newly-minted bankers were doing at the time to keep up with the workload, like not taking time out to wash their underwear and just buying new ones instead. 

The volume of deals is similarly high today, but as a banker you know that if you work hard for a few years, you get promoted and your life gets easier. Stress is never permanent; it’s transitory.

People like to say that there are more important things than work. I work longer hours now than I have any point in my career, but that’s because I enjoy my work. Not to minimalize Frostick and his regrettable situation, but when I’m on my deathbed, I won’t regret all the time I spent working; I will regret all the time I spent watching television. If you’re doing what you love, then you’re not conflicted about work-life issues.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jared Dillian is the editor and publisher of The Daily Dirtnap, investment strategist at Mauldin Economics, and the author of “Street Freak” and “All the Evil of This World.” He may have a stake in the areas he writes about.

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