In the Hyper-Competitive Investment Industry, People Rarely Talk About Mental Health Issues. That’s Slowly Starting to Change.
Asset managers, including AllianceBernstein, have created innovative mental wellness programs since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Stigma. Almost every investment professional I interviewed used this term to describe how the industry has made mental health an off-limits subject. Even as the asset management industry has finally made diversity a priority over the last few years, it hasn’t given mental health the attention it deserves. That’s not surprising given the hyper-competitive nature of investing, with few professionals willing to be outspoken about anything, whether it’s family obligations or disabilities, that they fear could be perceived as a weakness. But ignoring psychological issues never leads to wellness. That’s why we need to tackle this problem head-on.
“When I ‘came out’ with bipolar disorder in 2006, it was still a very taboo subject,” says Jared Dillian, a former Wall Street trader and the editor of The Daily Dirtnap, a newsletter for investment professionals. Sixteen years later, asset managers, institutional investors, fintechs, and other financial firms need to implement support programs and encourage everyone from junior staffers to CEOs to be candid about mental health and what they need. Providing support isn’t just the right thing to do. Failing to address these issues is costly — in productivity, sick days, and the effect on colleagues.
The Covid-19 pandemic has undoubtedly caused widespread stress, anxiety, and feelings of hopelessness. The Kaiser Family Foundation reported in February 2021 that almost 40 percent of U.S. adults had symptoms of anxiety or depression during the pandemic, a nearly four-fold increase in the percentage of adults who experienced these issues between January and June 2019.
Financial professionals were certainly not excluded from the pain, of course. In fact, institutional investors often had to calm anxious clients in addition to managing their own Covid fears and the disruptions in their lives. “It can be difficult to stay grounded when you are working with people who are experiencing a state of heightened stress,” explains clinical psychologist Joy Lere. “It was difficult for most people to maintain emotional equilibrium throughout the pandemic, regardless of their chosen profession. Some even began to exhibit trauma symptoms as the events of the last two years unfolded.”
Given the market volatility and economic uncertainty early in the pandemic, many investment advisers needed to respond to their clients’ financial anxiety while also preventing them from making investment mistakes. “It can take an emotional toll when you are in a position to contain and respond to other people’s fears, particularly when you are experiencing a great deal of internal distress while trying to communicate a message of reassurance and calm,” adds Lere.
Some investment professionals, financial advisers in particular, have struggled to adequately address their own mental health needs throughout the pandemic. “It’s not too late to seek help. As the world emerges from a state of shock and crisis, this is an excellent time to speak with someone who can help you unpack and process all that you’ve been through as a survivor of the pandemic,” says Lere.
Mental health issues in the investment industry certainly predate the pandemic.
The investment industry has long been a high-stress, high-stakes culture, and this strenuous environment can cause or magnify psychological difficulties. The simple fact that markets are always open somewhere makes it difficult for investment professionals to unplug. “Any culture where someone must be on 24/7 — either through markets or via client demands — is negative for our state of mind,” says Denise Shull, founder of performance-coaching firm ReThink Group. The human brain functions best when it gets rest. A simple good night’s sleep can help us resolve conflicts and renew our optimism. Shull says risk management can suffer when mental health declines, a major concern for investment managers. “Risks will not be appreciated for their true character when one’s energy is lacking or pessimism is increased,” she says.
The industry’s culture has long repressed conversation about these problems, though. “Severe mental health issues in the industry are usually hard to talk about,” says David Humphreys, an investment consultant at Northwestern Mutual. He notes that physical disabilities are typically easier for his colleagues to discuss than mental health needs.
Seth Hersch, a quantitative research analyst at Fisher Investments, has opted not to widely disclose his autism and anxiety diagnoses at work. “My firm actually does not know that I am on the autism spectrum, and only my immediate manager is aware I have dealt with anxiety my whole life,” Hersch says. “When being a ‘team player’ is so highly valued, the last thing you want to do is give the appearance you’re a ‘lone wolf’ type, even if you prefer seclusion to company in your life otherwise,” he says. “It’s just a liability not worth taking on.” Nobody wants to be a “pariah,” he says.
Companies are beginning to take note of the importance of mental health. Enhanced employee productivity and improved workforce-retention rates provide tangible benefits for investment firms that incorporate mental health services and resources into existing wellness programs. For example, about 86 percent of employees report improved work performance and lower rates of absenteeism following treatment for depression, according to the Society for Human Resource Management. Capital Innovations, an investment management firm focused on real assets, has thus created an employee assistance program that includes confidential access to mental health services 24/7, including up to 20 therapy sessions a year with a counselor. Regarding mental health, Capital Innovations CIO Michael Underhill says, “One small crack does not mean that you are broken; it means that you were put to the test, and you didn’t fall apart.”
AllianceBernstein has created a comprehensive mental wellness program since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. The firm incorporates resources such as free access to the Calm app and Talkspace — added in 2020 for virtual counseling services — with designated wellness days and mental health training for some managers. Over 600 employees currently use Calm, including Livia Ramirez, chief operating officer for legal and compliance, and Allie Feiner, head of global technology and organizational development. Both women are also Mental Health First Aid leaders for the firm. “We really act as that conduit to bring all of the great resources that the firm offers to our teams,” says Feiner. She finds that her personal experience with the company’s mental health offerings enables her to support colleagues better. Ramirez adds that she welcomes conversation about mental health at work. “We want our employees, our colleagues, to be very authentic. We want everyone to bring their whole selves to the firm,” she says.
Investment industry employees can, and often should, look outside of employer-sponsored resources and services too. It’s also important to take care of your psychological well-being before having a breakdown. “Therapy is proactive,” notes Lere. Don’t wait until you’re broken to seek counseling. Rachel Wolitzky, a psychologist in New York City, agrees, saying, “What’s the worst that can happen? A competent therapist, believe it or not, will tell you if you don’t need to be there.” She also recommends meeting with at least two practitioners before making a decision regarding therapy. Getting enough sleep, eating healthily, practicing yoga or meditation, and reconnecting with meaningful spiritual or religious practices can improve total wellness too. (Dillian, the investment writer, regularly reminds readers who have been prescribed medication for mental illness to take their meds and to never cease treatment without a psychiatrist’s okay.)
“Leveraging the tenets of emotional intelligence is one of the greatest opportunities financial professionals have to bolster their mental wellness,” says Ali McCarthy, an expert on the emotional intelligence of financial advisers and the chief marketing officer at Skience, a wealth management technology firm. By delving into your own mind, she says, you’ll be happier and a more effective colleague too. Thus, addressing your psychological health can have a high return on investment. When we think about wellness from this perspective, it’s easy to understand the value of caring for our minds.
There’s an important diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) aspect of psychological health too. The historical lack of diversity in the institutional investment business can create tension and anxiety in and of itself. Lazetta Rainey Braxton, an expert on DEI in finance, says that people from underrepresented groups may feel significant stress in workplaces lacking in inclusivity. “The mental energy required to constantly fight for respect and equitable treatment for profitable contributions to the firm’s bottom line can be overwhelming and debilitating,” she says. A culture of belonging thus improves the environment for mental health in a firm. “When employees feel disenfranchised, undervalued, and underpaid, culture and performance are severely impacted. A threat to one’s livelihood is also a threat to one’s life,” she says. Companies need to ensure that all employees know they are appreciated and valued equally.
Anxiety, depression, and other mental health challenges are threatening the current and future health of the investment industry, so let’s address them. “Financial professionals who work on themselves have a better chance of bringing the best version of themselves to the workplace,” Braxton says. There’s no shame in admitting you’re struggling! (It’s best to pursue treatment prior to a mental health crisis, however.) In fact, seeking help illustrates your strength and can inspire others to pursue treatment too. By working together, we can create a healthier future for everyone in the investment industry. How do we start? We stop pretending that everything, and everyone, in the field is fine.
It’s time we talk about mental health.
This article was written in memory of every investment professional lost to suicide.
Nathan Yates holds a Master’s degree in Finance from Southern New Hampshire University and currently works as a research analyst from his home in Virginia.