October 6, 2022

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Why high paid, overworked bankers are quitting now: ‘The lifestyle trade-off just wasn’t worth it’

Robert Malin’s boxed wine business was initially only a hobby – a side gig of his main job as a currency salesman at investment bank Jefferies in London.

The pandemic offered an opportunity.

Sales had “boomed” for his When in Rome product, which offers high-quality wine in environmentally friendly boxes, as locked-down workers drank more at home.

“It was tough getting in every morning at 7am, and I found that culture of face time and long hours difficult,” Malin told Financial News of his decision to quit his job in August to focus on the business full time. “There was a definite motivation of a better lifestyle, but the pandemic has also put a tailwind behind the business.”

He said he also aimed for a “higher level of satisfaction” and to “gain full control of my destiny”.

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The Covid-19 health crisis has increased stress and prompted many to dwell on what really matters in life, according to conversations with bankers and career consultants focused on the sector. And City headhunters say they are encountering more bankers, particularly at the junior and mid-rank level, who are thinking about quitting. Many may wait, however, until after bonuses are paid next year before making the leap.

“It’s been a very difficult time for a lot of people, and many have had family members affected by the virus,” said one headhunter. “A lot of bankers, particularly junior and mid-ranking ones, are recalibrating their lives around what’s important.” 

For others, the crisis made working life unbearable. Like many investment bankers, Giovanni (who requested anonymity because of employer non-disclosure requirements), was putting in gruelling 100-hour weeks, leaving little free time. 

The banking analyst, who left Bank of America in October, said the pandemic lockdown increased his stress even further. He took the risky, “drastic”, action to quit the industry for good and is in the process of launching his own venture. 

“During lockdown, it just kept on running through my head that the job wasn’t sustainable any more,” he told Financial News. “Those few hours every week when you get a chance to see friends, go for a drink or do anything that wasn’t sitting in front of a computer had just disappeared.” 

“It’s a high-paying job, but the lifestyle trade-off just wasn’t worth it,” he added.

“I’ve seen heightened stress across every level among investment bankers, from junior bankers to mid managers to managing directors,” said Roy Cohen, a Wall Street career coach who has worked with Goldman Sachs among other firms.

“Junior bankers have less to lose by making a career shift because they have less to lose financially and they have not yet earned the big bucks,” he added. “They also have a skillset that is likely to be more current and relevant.” 

Banking executives have also hinted that the current crisis has led many to reassess their lives and their careers. 

Swiss bank UBS booked a $359m compensation charge during the third quarter of this year as it accelerated some of its deferred bonus payments. When quizzed on the cost by analysts, UBS’s then chief executive Sergio Ermotti said that “many of our colleagues” were “reprioritising their lives”. He said the move was in response to the “realisation that, you know, Covid-19 has changed the lives of many people, and we should not stand in the way of people’s life decisions.” 

Ivor Adair, a partner at employment lawyers Fox and Partners, said he has seen an increase in people looking to take a leap on a more risky career move, or quit their company to start their own venture. 

“This is less about feeling overworked and under pressure, and more a sense of disengagement,” he said. “Some businesses have taken their eyes off the ball when it comes to taking care of employees during the crisis. There’s been underperformance at the management level, and some people have felt very isolated, which gives them a lot of time to think about what they’d rather be doing.”

Emmanuel Lefort spent nearly 20 years at French bank Natixis, most recently as head of global markets for Asia Pacific, before leaving earlier this year.

“My plan was to spend six months travelling the world, exploring my options and seeing friends,” and then eventually start his own company, he said. But then the pandemic hit. “I’ve never had the chance to have a career break, and the crisis has just sped up my plans.”

So he started Weavit – an app that allows professionals to organise their business and personal information using machine learning. Covid-19 presented the chance to “experiment and try something entrepreneurial”. This included fundraising $1.2m at the height of the crisis.

“The fundraising process during the pandemic has been the most challenging,” he said. “In June and July I did almost the entire thing via WhatsApp, speaking to around 70 or 80 investors and meeting only three people in person.”

The Covid-19 pandemic has upended working practices across the banking sector, as firms have been forced to send thousands of employees home for much of the year. For junior bankers in particular this has been a struggle. Senior dealmakers have acknowledged that working in cramped apartments with flatmates has become more difficult for juniors as the pandemic has worn on, while they have also missed out on mentoring opportunities and faced a mounting workload. 

“I’m considering my exit options,” one junior at a US investment bank said.

Other juniors contacted by Financial News said the work had become “transactional” or “less efficient” when working from home, as their superiors paid even less attention to work-life balance and expected tasks to be completed at any given time.

Cohen said: “Many of them have expressed feelings of isolation that occur when you work alone for an extended period of time.” 

Meanwhile, working parents in the financial sector have also faced increased strain during the crisis. A survey of nearly 500 by CityParents, which supports parents working in corporate roles, found that 75{de3fc13d4eb210e6ea91a63b91641ad51ecf4a1f1306988bf846a537e7024eeb} had contended with longer working hours and higher levels of stress and anxiety. Around 22{de3fc13d4eb210e6ea91a63b91641ad51ecf4a1f1306988bf846a537e7024eeb} said that their careers had stalled throughout the crisis.

Investment banks have largely held off making job cuts throughout the pandemic, but Wall Street compensation consultant Johnson Associates is expecting layoffs to pick up next year as firms increase bonuses for certain divisions including fixed income trading and capital markets bankers, which have both enjoyed stellar earnings this year. 

Headhunters said they expected to see more turnover among bankers leaving the industry after bonuses are paid. Cohen advised caution on making any rash career moves.

“An impulsive move in the moment may feel exciting; it eliminates a source of dissatisfaction and it often provides an adrenaline rush,” he said. “But the opportunity costs may be significant if you haven’t evaluated the financial risk you assume whenever you make a change.”

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However, Giovanni said he expects juniors will fall out from the banking sector in the coming months, and has no regrets.

 “I’m living my life and living my dream, which I wasn’t doing in banking,” he said. “I looked at my senior colleagues and realised I couldn’t see myself in their position in 10 years’ time. There was no point in staying, as I wasn’t motivated anymore.”  

And Malin, the wine business owner, said finance is always a back-up option if things don’t work out. 

“The biggest adjustment has been learning to live on a much smaller salary,” he said. “We’re very well paid in finance and it’s easy to fall into a bit of a trap and just stay on the treadmill. I’m willing to make the sacrifice. Finance is still an insurance policy for me.”

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To contact the author of this story with feedback or news, email Paul Clarke