Are bankers deserving of your pity? That depends on how you define “banker”. If you mean one of the minuscule group (often said to be less than a thousand) who could genuinely be said to be personally culpable in causing the financial crisis in 2008, then clearly not. But if you mean any other of the hundreds of thousands, probably millions, of people employed in the global financial services industry, then yes.
At least so says a report by Swiss-based UNI Global Union, which notes that 80% of banking and insurance unions in 26 countries cited deteriorating health as a major problem for their members in the past two years. The UK’s Bank Workers Charity (BWC) reports that around a third of the current and former bank workers who have turned to it for help are suffering from stress, anxiety or depression.
Part of this is blamed on the strain on bankers’ personal lives caused by job insecurity and long hours worked to make up for reduced staffing levels. However, there is nothing special about bankers in those respects. Those are world-wide and industry-wide issues, though of course none the more desirable for that reason. The headlines over the UNI report have focussed instead on the impact of “banker bashing”, the continued overt public and political hostility to the financial services industry as a whole and all those who sail in it, regardless of whether they are Captain or cabin boy.
Accepting a degree of public resentment is probably part of the price you can expect to pay at the very upper end of the banking world – you make a lot of money, occasionally enjoy it quite ostentatiously and a small number of people who in those respects look a lot like you have caused untold economic hardship by the force of sheer greed alone. But what about all the others, those who neither did nor could have had anything at all to do with the financial crisis, and yet who find themselves as reviled, as legislated against and as subject to deferrals and claw-backs of their money as those actually responsible?
It must unquestionably erode one’s morale, resilience and ultimately mental health to know that in the public eye you are dammed by what you do, not what you actually did. Those UNI and BWC statistics are not surprising. The question then is what employers dealing with these cases of illness, stress and depression should do about it.
Of course, employers in all sectors must be realistic about the targets they set and the resources (human and otherwise) that they devote to doing so. A feeling that your employer is on your side will also go a long way to strengthen your individual resolve. No doubt there was much goodwill generated within Barclays Bank when CEO Bob Diamond told the UK Treasury Select Committee in January 2011 that “there was a period of remorse and apology for banks – that period needs to be over”. That is proper uplifting fighting talk for his staff, the sort of thing you want to hear from your leaders (though sadly rather undermined by his resignation the following year over the Bank’s interest rate rigging scandal). However, if there is a mis-match between what your employer says externally and how it treats you internally, this can do more damage to morale and stress levels than its not saying anything supportive at all.
As to “banker bashing”, it may be that there is no easy answer. Perhaps bank workers must simply wait, like employees of the Crown Prosecution Service, the Border Control Agency, MPs, lawyers or estate agents – no, strike that last one – until the burning glare of public ire just moves on to something else. It can only be a matter of time.