Ten years ago, Ian Burns was managing director and head of pan-European cash equity sales at Citigroup, when he made a mistake. It was 5:56 a.m. and he had just started work after finishing around 10 p.m. the day before. Despite a flawless run during a 26-year career in banking, he sent two emails containing inside information that was not due to be shared until 7 a.m.
It cost him dearly. “The mistake meant I was fired for gross misconduct, and that destroyed me,” Burns says. He lost his income while still having a mortgage to pay and two children in boarding schools. He lost hundreds of thousands in deferred bonuses. He writes that the mistake probably cost him his marriage as well: “The financial devastation was accompanied by social humiliation and emotional destruction.”
Looking back, Burns attributes the mistake to burnout. A perfectionist, he told himself that he thrived on stress. He worked late and started early and was “completely exhausted”. His then wife had noticed him. “A few weeks before she told me my behavior was manic and the more I understand about mental health the more I know she was absolutely right. I was prone to mania because I had come to the point where things weren’t working.”
It was ten years ago. A decade later, Burns understands a lot about mental health: he has spent the past four years training as a psychotherapist and psychoanalyst and is currently working as an apprentice psychologist for the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust. “In the future, it will be a mix of private and NHS practice,” says Burns. “I’m not averse to working with banking clients, but I won’t seek them out.”
Burns’ own banking career wasn’t over when he made the mistake in 2012. He then moved on to SocGen, where he spent more than a year as co-head of pan-European equity sales. , then HSBC, where he did similar work. role until 2017. But he was increasingly disengaged and increasingly maverick in his approach. He took up yoga. He rose up against the sales KPIs. He advocated working from home when such things were unthinkable. “Ironically, once I realized I didn’t really want to be a part of it anymore, I got more leadership roles,” Burns says. Eventually he was let go: “A battle was going on and I lost it. Thankfully.”
Today, as someone who has undergone extensive training in mental health and spent many years reflecting on his mistakes, Burns is in a good position to diagnose the ills of the industry. From his new perspective, Burns says he can see the impact his previous career has had on his mental health and relationships.
Anyone who claims to be surprised at the notoriety of the bank long hours is naive, says Burns. “When you sign up for a job in investment banking, it’s very clear that you’ll have to work to the requirements of the company.” Moreover, he says that the kind of people hired by banks are happy about it: “It’s very difficult to be the smartest person in the room, but you can be the hardest worker. It’s never the managers who say you have to work until 11 p.m. and be back by 6 a.m. the next morning.”
Likewise, he says that everyone knows the game when it comes to bonuses and RiFs (discounts in effect). “If you work for a bank, you know there’s going to be an annual layoff round, and you also know that if you’re not in the top quartile of artists, there’s a chance you’ll be laid off before premiums are not paid.” Banking is not like other industries, says Burns. As a senior manager, your primary role is to identify and eliminate underperformers on an annual basis. “You have this fantasy that it’s about improving and developing your squad and recruiting and coaching juniors well, but you know it’s really about doing more with less.”
While that may sound harsh, Burns suggests it’s a world in which the participants know the rules and are willingly complicit in the resulting reality. “It’s a very high paying industry and people understand what it is.” Even so, individuals can fall prey to myopia and misplaced illusions of invulnerability. Two years after the 2008 financial crisis, people who had feared the end of their careers were again complaining about the size of their bonuses, says Burns: “There was this chatter that because the banks had been supported, they needed to restore back to their former glories and that meant hiring the best staff with high salaries. Despite the precariousness of their jobs, he says people in banking tend to spend all their money and think in terms of comparisons rather than absolutes: “It always feels like there’s has more to come next year. That if you received an amount and you a colleague did more, you will see if you can get the higher amount in the next bonus round.”
Sometimes, however, it can become too much. Sometimes you can lose your job and your marriage and almost everything. “For anyone who finds a job almost overwhelming. Don’t push yourself too hard or your body and mind will stop you and where you once thought you had control, you will now be afraid that you will never have it,” Burns writes. . How will you know when you are close to that point? “It’s the people around you who recognize it,” he says. “The people who know you best and love you the most will sense that something is wrong. My advice is that if someone who cares about you says, ‘Are you okay?’ No. You must be able to listen. You must hear it for the warning that it really is.
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