It's nine o'clock in the morning, in an office building somewhere in the City. In a cubicle in the women's washroom, Karen is stabbing herself in the thigh with scissors as punishment for eating a greasy bacon roll on the way to work. In the gents, Roddy is snorting a little something off the cistern top. On the trading floor, Claire, still drenched in sweat from two hours in the gym, swigs whisky from an old Starbucks cup; Claire will earn seven figures this year as head of Capital Markets, by the way, but she's convinced that her parents worship her older brothers.
At a nearby desk, Peter whispers into his mobile phone, ordering flowers for the wife he knocked unconscious during a row last night -- the third time this month. Over in Corporate Finance, Alan is surreptitiously retrieving from his chair the spare suit jacket he placed there last night so he could sneak off home before midnight while giving the impression of still being at his desk. His secretary cannot vouch for him; her laxative binge has finally kicked in and she's locked in the cubicle next to Karen.
If you think this grotesque multi-layered scene could only happen in a Channel 4 drama, think again. From a psychological viewpoint, today's City types are (if you'll forgive the medical terminology) cracking up.
Patterns of disturbed behaviour just like these are prevalent -- and understandable. Not only is the City harbouring widespread emotional malaise: the City itself is its cause.
In the old days in the Square Mile (by which I mean pre-1980s, and long before most of it moved to Canary Wharf) men were men, and gentlemen worked for Cazenoves. 'It was a jolly place, if a bit lacklustre, ' a headhunter who has worked in financial services since 1972 told me. 'A white middle-class boys' club, ' said one senior insurance broker.
'Beyond uncool.' But above all, it was stable -- until 1986, the year of Big Bang, the Thatcher government's deregulation of the equity and gilt markets, closely followed by the 1987 stock-market crash. In those two critical years, the City's psyche changed for ever.
A not entirely tongue-in-cheek metaphorical analysis might interpret what happened thus: the City became paranoid and overly competitive, unsure of its own emerging identity. Financial institutions developed borderline personality traits, scrambling to make intense, inappropriate relationships with other banks, brokers or jobbing firms to ease chronic feelings of emptiness or isolation. As the atmosphere became more disturbed, some firms resorted to repeated episodes of selfharm (remember the accident-prone County NatWest? ). A few, such as the Barclays subsidiary BZW, developed full-blown schizophrenia, pulled in different directions by internal voices and eventually torn apart. Still others -- here Barings comes to mind -- suddenly came to grief after years spent in pathological denial, convinced they were this close to being Britain's answer to the American investment banks.
Ah! The American banks, those eldest sons on whom all blessings rained. If anyone doubts the existence of sibling rivalry in the world, how it spurs some to compete and diminishes others into extinction, you only have to look at how the City became Americanised. From having been a genteel place where what counted was who you knew or where you went to school, the City became an edgy meritocracy, noted for conspicuous, 'loadsamoney' consumption. Merger and acquisition deals made front-page news. Even nerdy-looking M&A practitioners, once anonymous backroom technicians, made front-page news. Under ever-increasing pressure to perform, the City went from being a cosseted only child to being an emotionally unstable adrenalin junkie.
In order to fit in, employees adopted the erratic, risk-taking psychological profile of the organisations in which they worked. In the insurance broker's words, almost overnight the City became an 'I'll f*** you before you f*** me' kind of place. The personal integrity of staff -- their humanity, even -- was squeezed dry: as well as sneaky spare jackets on their chairs, they now had straitjackets on their souls.
This environment of florid instability still exists, and has enormous consequences for City workers today. It has led Dr Neil Brenner, consultant psychiatrist at the Rood Lane Medical Group practice in the City, to coin the term Bonus Anxiety Disorder to describe the way workers' behaviour is affected by the only form of appraisal in the City which counts -- money. 'Whether it's a secretary who's the breadwinner in her marriage or the head of a division, people feel trapped by the golden handcuffs of their pay, and are under pressure 24/7 to perform.' Lack of job security compounds the problem. One young director at an American investment bank told me that City employees in 2005 are even more insecure now than they were during the redundancies of 1988 and 1991-2. 'Back then there was the sense that the boom times would return in a year or two and you'd get your job back. Now there's very little confidence that the glory days will come back.' Paranoia is rife, and recent press reports of a record bonus bonanza to come at the end of this year have done little to diminish it.
'Anyone who survived the culls of the past 15 years, ' a former head of Fixed Income explained to me, 'is now by definition older, with more to lose.' This paranoia led one homosexual Capital Markets executive to marry an asylum-seeker from Russia to mask his orientation from his boss. It also led a midranking corporate financier to work every hour of every day, including Christmas, to pre-empt the accusation at appraisal time that he wasn't committed to the firm. He was fired anyway, for not being thought a team player.
Psychiatrists have identified two types of City worker: those who work their way up from the bottom and are essentially self-made, and those who are hyper-educated. Both types are hungry, and attracted to a ruthless, competitive environment. But what are they hungry for? According to Dr Mike McPhillips, consultant psychiatrist at the Priory Hospital in Roehampton, 'Often there are issues in a person's background that have led them to seek success, or to rely too heavily on work as a source of self-worth.' Often, high salaries are compensation for earlier emotional deficits. It can be quite an epiphany for the head of a trading floor to acknowledge what it means for him to be enormously successful, yet still Dad doesn't remember his birthday.
The emotional arbitrage of a high-risk, highreward culture exacts a hefty price. How each person responds depends on their vulnerability. Pre-Big Bang, those who were anxious about their work were highly unlikely to take themselves off to therapy. They were more likely to self-medicate -- under the guise of socialising -- by abusing alcohol. This still happens today, although the substance of choice for those on inflated salaries is just as likely to be cocaine. It is worse than a false cure.
As these pressures take their toll, many City workers crash and burn. But more and more are beginning to seek help. We therapists are noticing a greater willingness among City types to seek 'the talking cure' of one-toone psychotherapy. It's a treatment process that appeals to patients who relish hard work, because it demands that people confront what is suppressed and 'get in touch' with what is unbearable. Even so, many from the City find psychotherapy's lack of a 'quick fix' frustrating. A high achiever who is capable single-handedly of restructuring the national debt of Kazakhstan will feel exasperated when depression doesn't lift after a week.
Nowadays, human resources departments have hotlines to psychiatrists, to deal with emotional distress before it spirals out of control. Enlightened companies such as the accountants Ernst & Young and the insurance group AON run 'employee assistance programmes' which provide staff with easy access to therapists. Other employers refer troubled staff to specialist firms which have turned 'employee assistance' into a cottage industry all of its own. Partly this development has arisen out of a general increase in the understanding of mental illness throughout society.
But it is also a recognition that in a service industry companies are only as strong as the people they employ.
There is also a mood shift among new and prospective City employees. Quality of life is at last trumping the attraction of high pay. A managing director in corporate finance told me about this changing work ethic: 'People look at the money they can earn and at the trade-off in terms of hours worked, and they're deciding "that's not for me". Today's best graduates are looking at the media. The City is now secondtier.' Professions regarded as dull by the previous City generation are coming into their own again: one leading law firm last year received 3,000 applications for 100 places on its graduate training scheme. 'People crave stability, not a bulging wallet, ' a partner there says.
In the financial world everything has its price -- and finally the people who work there are putting a premium on their own mental health.
Will the last banker to leave the City kindly take all his jackets with him?
© 2005 Spectator Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
Source: Spectator, The London