For starters, the finance industry is notorious for its long working hours, high-stress environment, and competitive nature. Most people know that a career in finance is a grind! Employees in many finance roles, especially in investment banking and private equity, are often expected to work late hours, weekends, and holidays to meet deadlines and achieve targets. The fast-paced and high-pressure nature of the industry can take a toll on one’s mental health and well-being. What makes this an even harder problem to face is that taking time off or stepping back from work is often seen as a sign of weakness or a lack of commitment, particularly in the more toxic financial environments. At these firms, taking a mental health break can be perceived as a failure to keep up with the pace by seasoned professionals, who will often leverage pressure and their position as being more senior to extract the most output out of you. So when you take a mental health break in finance, your environment and the people around you are bound to lead to feelings of guilt and shame.
To compound this issue further, there is a culture of presenteeism in the finance industry, where being physically present in the office is seen as a sign of commitment and productivity; face-time culture is a real thing, especially when your office is filled with old-school finance veterans. This culture is reinforced by the long hours and the expectation of always being available for work. This often means that you perpetually feel tied down by the job and have an inability to “live a normal life”. Another large issue is group-think in financial environments. When you are surrounded by type A people who are all highly competitive and know what it takes to come out on top, you will generally see the culture be reflective of this cut-throat nature. Taking a mental health break can be seen as a deviation from this culture, which can lead to negative perceptions from colleagues and superiors. The fear of being judged or seen as less committed can lead to guilt and anxiety, which can further exacerbate mental health issues and further compounds our reluctance to take a mental-health break.
Thirdly, the finance industry is highly competitive, and individuals are often pitted against each other to achieve targets and bonuses. The culture of competition can create a sense of insecurity and fear of falling behind. In such an environment, taking a mental health break can be seen as a weakness that can be exploited by colleagues or competitors. The fear of losing your edge or being replaced can lead to feelings of guilt and shame, which can further exacerbate mental health issues. To make this worse, your superiors fully know and understand this, and often know how to use it to get the most work out of you.
To top it all off, we know that in finance, pay is a major factor, and a sizable portion of your total compensation comes from bonus or incentive pay. This incremental pay can create a sense of obligation to work hard. Many people in the industry feel guilty taking a mental health break because they fear it will be perceived as a lack of gratitude or appreciation for the financial rewards of the job – and this is not because they naturally feel like this, it is because people above you and around you understand the dynamic at play and use it to their advantage. This can lead to overwhelming pressure to maintain a certain degree of dedication towards the job and can lead to a sense of guilt or shame when taking time off for mental health reasons.
So, what can we do to overcome this omnipotent guilt feeling of taking a mental health break in finance?
We need to challenge the culture of presenteeism in the finance industry. Being physically present in the office does not necessarily equate to productivity or commitment. Remote work and flexible schedules can be effective ways to accommodate employees’ mental health needs without compromising productivity. While a lot of stress is a big factor in this industry, given the large sums of money you are dealing with, it shouldn’t come at the cost of your mental well-being. Utilize the resources most banks have, and if you get backlash for taking a healthy amount of time for yourself, you are fully able to push back. At the end of the day, this is a job, it is not everything – even though people make it seem like it is everything. If it is still unbearable, I think it is still very noble to take a step back and understand whether or not this is even the right career for you. Very few people truly understand what comes with a role in finance – the first step to avoiding any issues with mental health is to realize, at face value, what these careers and their associated cultures entail before jumping in.
To wrap up, the guilt associated with taking a mental health break in finance is a complex issue that stems from the pressure and expectations of the industry. If you plan on staying around for long, it is important to recognize that mental health is as important as physical health and that taking a mental health break is not a sign of weakness or lack of commitment. Banks need to create a culture that values mental health and well-being and promotes collaboration, support, and education about mental health issues. On the flip side, potential applicants into the industry should understand that yes while the pay is attractive, it comes at the cost of a flexible lifestyle in your youth, and as such, future finance professionals may want to consider if this is really the life for them.
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