Looking for the Exit on Wall Street

By Jessica Marquez

Nov. 21, 2008

Stress levels have gone from bad to worse on Wall Street. And if firms don’t do something to address the situation, they risk losing their remaining talent, according to a study by the Hidden Brain Drain Task Force, a consortium of 39 companies focused on retaining and recruiting women and minorities.

    The study, which is based on interviews with 200 Wall Street employees from February through July, found that 64 percent of workers were considering leaving their jobs because of stress. Twenty-four percent said they were looking for another job as a result of stress. Forty-nine percent of respondents cited unpredictability as the main source of their stress, up from 7 percent who gave that reason a year ago.

    “People went into these jobs with the understanding that they would work long hours under a lot of performance pressure,” says Sylvia Ann Hewlett, an economist and president of the Center for Work-Life Policy, the New York-based think tank that conducted the study. “But now, not only are they working much harder, but their salaries are down and their bonus is going to be slashed.”

    And that situation has only gotten worse since the study was conducted. “I recently spoke to one participant in the study who told me that his level of stress was a five out of 10 when we did this; now it’s a 10,” Hewlett says.

    Workers on Wall Street are paying the price for these stress levels, the study shows. Sixty-six percent said they weren’t getting enough sleep, up from 48 percent a year ago. Thirty percent said they needed a drink at the end of the day to relax, up from 23 percent a year ago.

    To come up with an action plan to address these findings, the members of the Hidden Brain Drain Task Force held a series of brainstorming sessions in March and June. Many of the firms’ ideas centered on communication.

    Failing to communicate about the status of the company, no matter how bleak, was a key mistake that a few firms made in the past few months, Hewlett says.

    “Firms thought that if they didn’t know what their future held that they should just shut up,” Hewlett says. “But having your boss share honestly about how things look and what could happen makes people feel like they are part of a team and a bit more in control.”

    Creating this kind of “no-spin zone” is a key way that companies can retain employees and keep them engaged, Hewlett says.

    Other ways that firms can do this is by offering career advancement opportunities that might not be connected to a pay raise as well as offering flextime or the ability to go to the gym at odd hours, she says.

    “Even just taking the team out for a drink after work can be enormously valued,” she says.

    Wall Street firms that are doing nothing to retain talent because they think their people have nowhere to go may be in for a rude awakening, Hewlett says.

    “We know that there is a lot of poaching of talent going on there,” she says. “The firms that are relatively well off are seeing this as an opportunity to cherry-pick talent.”

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