After the suicides of eight people in the global financial sector over six months, investment banks have come under pressure to pay more attention to the mental health of their employees. The high-stress, competitive environment - with its unpredictably punishing workweeks - are seen as creating the conditions for pushing some people over the edge.
The top firms now encourage junior bankers to take some weekend days off each month. Such changes are welcome, even if they were motivated by competition from hedge funds and private equity firms for talent rather than a response to the deaths. But let's put the problem in perspective. In answer to the question raised in a recent Fortune magazine article, no, there isn't a suicide contagion on Wall Street. Rather, the handful of suicides, tragic as each one is, involved the segment of the population most at risk: white men, particularly over 50.
The death that got the most publicity wasn't a suicide. A 21-year-old intern who was working day and night in London at Bank of America Corp. died on Aug. 15 from asphyxiation after a seizure, a condition for which he was already taking medication. As for the confirmed and suspected suicides, which occurred from last August to February, the victims ranged in age from 33 to 59; half were over 50.
They weren't young men in over their heads; they were well- established. Two employees of J.P. Morgan Chase who committed suicide weren't investment bankers, per se: one was a vice president overseeing technology for fixed-income securities and the other was an associate in the billing department supporting the investment bank.
So how does finance compare with other professions in frequency of suicides? Data are hard to find. Fortune magazine asked the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the latest statistics from its National Occupational Mortality Surveillance database. Numbers from 2007 indicate that "sales representatives for financial and business services" - which includes various banking positions, including investment advisers, brokers and traders - are 39 percent more likely to kill themselves than people in the workforce as a whole.
But some other white-collar professionals are at even greater risk: Lawyers are 54 percent more likely than average to die by suicide, for example, and doctors are 97 percent more likely.
This suggests that the finance profession isn't causing people to kill themselves, rather that banking has high concentrations of workers in the demographic group at greatest risk for self-harm. In the United States, men are four times as likely as women to take their lives; white males are three times more likely than blacks and twice as likely as Asians and Hispanics. The overall suicide rate increased by 30 percent in the last decade. The jump was most pronounced among men in their 50s; their suicide rates jumped by nearly 50 percent, to about 30 per 100,000 nationwide.
Yes, Wall Street is an intense place. Because junior employees' schedules are at the behest of clients around the clock, it is hard to count on time with family and friends. Social isolation becomes a risk. Complaining to bosses and co- workers can be read as a sign of weakness. That may increase reluctance to seek guidance or professional help, though the major investment firms have employee-assistance programs.
But most young people who enter investment banking know what they are getting into. Many have already done internships in finance and some fraction of them returned to those firms after graduating. Yes, the hours are extreme, and the competition fierce - "Lord of the Flies" with town cars - but ambitious people starting out in Silicon Valley, in surgical residencies and as associates in law firms also work long hours. And on Wall Street the paychecks ease the pain. Hours significantly decrease with seniority and promotions and, over time, bankers can jump to perches that allow more autonomy such as private equity groups, hedge funds or venture capital.
Suicide is a bewildering act, often precipitated by a profound sense of humiliation, failure and hopelessness. There seems no way out. Bankers are susceptible to the same miasma of despair that can befall anyone - failed relationships, loss, rejection, terminal illness, severe clinical depression. The computer's unblinking eye, the hard-charging boss and sleepless art of the deal aren't themselves driving people over the ultimate brink.