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Banks were all about employee resilience. That was probably a mistake

Last week was mental health week. In the post-pandemic environment where mental health problems have proliferated and people in finance and beyond are more comfortable talking about their discomfort, the approach to fostering good mental health is changing. Resilience - the watchword for people in banking after the financial crisis - is being replaced by a more nuanced approach to being well. 

"Resilience was used a lot after Hurricane Katrina," says Anouchka Grose, a psychoanalyst operating in South East London. "It can be an expression for a lack of sympathy. It effectively means, 'Shut up and get on with it.' It puts the responsibility onto the individual, rather than the system." 

Goldman Sachs was one of the banks that espoused resilience. In 2011, the firm ran an entire resilience week. Goldman defined resilience across five dimensions: state of mind (taking control of thoughts and staying in the present), physical strength (increasing energy and stamina for work and life), connections (cultivating positive work and personal relationships), purpose (aligning goals and priorities with values) and self-awareness (developing a clear perception of self, including strengths, motivations and areas that need to be developed). Employee resilience was touted in the firm's sustainability reports until at least 2020, when the bank boasted its 'personalized resilience-building programs' and its 'resilience-training sessions.'

In the past few years, though, reference to resilience in relation to employees, has disappeared entirely from Goldman's sustainability reports. It's not clear why, but it may have something to do with the now notorious working conditions survey completed by first year technology analysts early in the pandemic. Survey respondents were excoriating. “The sleep deprivation, the treatment by senior bankers, the mental and physical stress…I’ve been through foster care and this is arguably worse,” went one often-cited quote. Advocating resilience sounds insensitive in the circumstances.

Goldman Sachs isn't the only bank where employee wellbeing has been an issue. A recently released report on working conditions from Wall Street Oasis, found that nearly a third of bankers had considered seeking professional counselling or therapy due to stress at work. “Industrials and tech close a ton of deals but you will do irreversible physical and mental damage to yourself in the working conditions in those groups,” said one analyst at a boutique firm. With deals and fees down, but pitching continuing with increasing desperation even as teams are cut, many people in investment banking teams are working as hard as ever. One MD told us the situation is akin to headless chickens: there's a frantic perpetuation of activity, but little to show for it.

In the circumstances, the 'powering through' implied by resilience is being displaced by a more gentle approach. Rischenda Poulson, a psychotherapist in Surrey, says it's now less about resilience and more about tolerance of stressors and an acceptance of and willingness to show vulnerability. 

Resilience implies stoicism, says Poulson, who's worked with bankers in burnout at the Priory Clinic. This isn't bad in itself, unless the emphasis on resilience becomes excessive and equates to self-sabotage and harm. The emotional driver for the damaging behaviour is what matters, she says. "People often have a core belief that their worth is connected to their performance, which then drives their feeling that they have to be resilient and can mean that they end up burning out."

By coupling a tolerance for stressors with a willingness to be vulnerable and to show weakness, Poulson says people in finance are better able to build self-worth that's disassociated from relentless performance irrespective of the health outcomes. "Having integrity and feeling worthy are the ultimate achievements," she says. "If you are at peace with yourself and have an authenticity and integrity in the way you live your life, you will be more likely to listen to yourself rather than be driven by external goals."  

Grose agrees that it's this sense of personal integrity that's key to mental wellbeing, but says it can be elusive for her financial services clients. "People in professions like banking and law have a lot of cognitive dissonance," she says. "They're very aware of things that are wrong in the world in terms of climate change and social responsibility, but they understand equally that their jobs can be a source of harm." In this situation, she says resilience can equate to a command from the employer not to question the situation, which in itself can make things worse. 

Nor do employers' efforts with corporate social responsibility schemes negate the dissonance: "That kind of large scale psychic offsetting doesn't run," says Grose. Instead, Grose says her clients often try intertemporal integrity calculations of their own. "The classic contemporary rich person psychic somersault is to envisage working hard in a dishonorable industry before retiring to something like an organic farm. You see that everywhere now," she muses.

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AUTHORSarah Butcher Global Editor

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