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Why do so many men in the financial sector commit suicide?

Former insurance group CEO Martin Senn committed suicide last week, raising questions about the cost of the 'no pain no gain' culture of finance. Joe Earle speaks to a trader in the City of London to find out what it's really like, and asks whether we need to rethink the working culture of the financial world

Martin Senn, the former Chief Executive of Zurich Insurance, took his own life at his holiday home in Switzerland last Friday. Senn stepped down from his role just six months ago, after a failed takeover bid for a rival, and a series of company losses. He was said to have been struggling to cope with his new life and loss of status.

His wasn’t the first suicide of a former Zurich Insurance employee; just three years before, Senn’s former colleague Pierre Wauthier, Zurich Insurance’s finance director, hung himself at his home in Switzerland.

Suicide is always devastating. But perhaps suicide in the financial sector is so striking because the vulnerability it highlights contrasts so starkly with the swagger and opulence the sector presents to outsiders. Financial centres from Tokyo to London to New York hold huge amounts of wealth, and high-level bankers themselves have the means to enjoy penthouses and yachts, helicopters and sport cars – a dream life, you would think. But every time we hear about a suicide it’s like we get a glimpse of a different, more vulnerable side of that world.

I wanted to find out more about what it's like to work in the City of London, and about the wellbeing of those who work there.

And that’s how I found myself at a golf driving range in north London talking to a friend of a friend, Clark Friar, who is starting out his career at a major British bank. While I failed miserably to get my golf balls shot over 10 metres, we covered all sorts. Work, stress, and life in the City - the intense working hours, the massive ups and sudden downs, the need to constantly prove yourself. The fear of failure - and the powerful sense of meaning and purpose it can bring.

Here’s what he said...

...on working hours

"As a trader I get in at 7 and I can leave at 5.30pm. It’s more sociable now than when I worked in what’s called ‘capital markets’, where I was doing 8am to 9pm. It basically meant that all I did was go home to eat and sleep during the week."

...on getting stressed

"There is the self-imposed stress to succeed. Banking is full of incredibly hungry and ambitious people who drive themselves to succeed. Then your bank puts stress on you. The culture is short term - especially in banking - and you can get fired very quickly. It’s a bit like being a football manager.

You’ll get supported as long as you are worth supporting. A trader on my floor had a couple of weeks off recently for stress-related leave and the company supported him. It’s a bit like football where if a player keeps getting injured and they are really good, their team will keep supporting them, but if they aren’t, they’ll get released."

You’ll get fired if you talk about your bonus. The way to negotiate is to go to your boss with an offer from a different bank and use that to demonstrate what you are worth to them. It’s not emotional – it’s a very rational culture and that’s the rational thing to do.

...on breaking the rules

"The regulators have decided what is good practice but there are lots of grey areas. If other traders at your bank or other banks are doing something a bit grey but succeeding and making money, you’re tempted to follow suit because there is pressure on you to succeed and it’s a cut throat environment.  But the stakes of doing that are high and if you’re caught going too far then there is a perception that you will be hung out to dry."

...on the highs and lows

"I’ve got a mate who is young and incredibly driven, but is doing badly at the moment and so he is taking bigger risks than he otherwise would. Another colleague made £12 million in the first three months of the year and was buzzing and then in two weeks lost £14 million and told me he couldn’t get out of the shower in the mornings."

...on gender

"On my row there are 36 traders and one is a woman. Opposite there are 32 and three woman and then across the way there are 18 and two women. Strikingly the average age of all the women is 20’s and they are all junior rank. The more senior you go the less women there are and this means the junior women don’t have any role models of successful senior women."

...on negotiating bonuses

"You’ll get fired if you talk about your bonus. The way to negotiate is to go to your boss with an offer from a different bank and use that to demonstrate what you are worth to them. It’s not emotional – it’s a very rational culture and that’s the rational thing to do."

 

A colleague made £12 million in the first three months of the year and was buzzing and then in two weeks lost £14 million and told me he couldn’t get out of the shower in the mornings.

...on motivation

I live at home, I’m not that into buying stuff and I’m not flashy. I find the job fascinating, and I like accumulating wealth: it’s the quickest and easiest measure of success and shows that I’m doing my job well. The money is valuable to me in a symbolic way as well as for the material benefits it brings.

I’m much more interested in work that interacts with the real economy. In my old job, I was getting finance for a wind turbine and other important, tangible projects – now my work is much more focused towards other banks and more abstract things. In trading, when the market shuts, you leave, while before I had to work longer for less money. Still, at least I’d be able to have something I could tell my kids about.

Talking to Clark made me think that surviving finance is about passing through a series of rites of passage. I’ve survived the 100 hour week, I’ve smashed my targets, I’ve taken control of my destiny.

It’s a ‘no pain no gain’ culture, where although money proves self-worth, it’s not always the goal. It’s like the British artist Grayson Perry said in his recent documentary on the financial sector and masculinity: it offers people access to what is essentially a high-status tribe.

So if people can get such a strong sense of meaning and purpose from this work, why does it drive some to suicide? Clark pointed out how male-dominated the financial sector is, and in the UK men are four times more likely than women to kill themselves. Suicide is the single biggest killer of men under the age of 50 – a hundred men die each week. So perhaps the high numbers of suicides in finance are actually just a reflection of the fact that more men commit suicide, and more men work in finance.

But so much about life in finance seems to me like a reflection of the ancient idea that men are either forged or broken in the face of adversity. Part of the intoxication of working in the City is that it is perceived as so difficult. The rewards are very high but to achieve them requires blood and sweat (but not tears). The insomnia, the anxiety, the stress, the absence of broader relationships, the premature ageing, the loss of all other experiences outside of the working routine are just a few of the hidden costs of membership to the ‘City tribe’, and of the side effects of the idea we have of what it means to be a ‘man’.

I guess my question is whether life in the City has to be like this. Is it possible to forge an identity and a culture in finance which has healthier ideas of masculinity and wellbeing at its core? To do this requires new working practices, and new ways of understanding what success means that celebrate different virtues.

I can completely see how that last paragraph might sound fluffy and utopian. Like thinking that you can persuade lions to become vegetarian. But news that Goldman Sachs is firing dozens of managing directors, executive directors and vice presidents along with its annual five percent cull of those deemed underperformers should remind us of the urgency of the need to at least try. Many of those people will retire or go straight on to other work but among them there might be the next Martin Senn. And there will be more Senns, until enough of the tribe realise that they can find a better balance.

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Reader Comments

  • Andy St John

    I think Joe Earle has opened up a very interesting debate here and a very important one. But I find it quite hard to put my finger on exactly what it is. He addresses the human cost of what it means to be a city trader. Sometimes that cost is a human life. A soon as we say human cost we create the possibility of a much deeper economy.
    What is “the cost” of a bankers life, to their family and friends, and to their children?
    I knew someone whose father had killed themselves and they were still strugglerling with the aftershock twenty years later. They were “still paying a price”.
    So while in one way it feels crude to reduce everything to the level of cost and price in another way it is vital. Because only then can we identify the “deeper” cost of things and only then can we map out a “deeper” economy. And if we can map out a deeper (and I would argue truer) economy then we can begin to talk about it, to look at it, to critique it, and perhaps, in time to change it.