Risk of Suicide Grows for Stressed Traders

LONDON -- Being a trader has seldom been more stressful.

Since a stock market bull run came to a grinding halt last year, psychologists who help stressed-out traders and bankers now fear a higher cost than mere write-downs: suicide.

"There is a great sense of urgency and anxiety around the city [of London] since the onset of the credit crunch," said Michael Sinclair, a psychologist who has two London practices, including one in the financial district.

Even as hopes build that the worst may be over, professional investors fear the global economic crisis carries real dangers that have not been seen for decades -- perhaps as far back as the Great Depression triggered by the 1929 Wall Street crash.

Where Canary Wharf's imposing concrete towers and loud bars usually exude confidence and wealth, now the mood is claustrophobic. On commuter trains, workers openly speculate about which team members will be culled.

"People are unable to jump ship as their usual coping mechanism," Sinclair said. "A lot of underlying insecurities come to the surface, around self-esteem and self worth, and -- yes -- there has been an increase in suicides."

No up-to-date statistics are available for occupation-specific suicides in Britain. But on anecdotal evidence, psychologists paint a dark picture, saying a recent surge in financial sector employees' stress is only the culmination of years living on the edge.

"There are increasing demands on people in the city," said Neil Brener, a psychiatrist at North London's Priory Hospital who practices in four different sites, including London's financial district and Canary Wharf.

Historians said market players today are generally more resilient and better supported than in 1929, when individuals were largely gambling with their own wealth and the crash spelled bankruptcy. But in finance in recent years, some deaths have been notable.

Three employees at Societe Generale in Paris have committed suicide in as many years, prompting unions to raise concerns over the stressful environment at the bank. The most recent was last June, when an equity derivatives trader in his 30s threw himself off a highway bridge near the bank's head office.

A Credit Suisse employee fell to his death from the Park Lane Hilton in late 2007, and the coroner's officer blamed work pressures. Two Citigroup workers -- including a trader -- fell from office blocks in London and Miami in 2006.

"The pressure on traders when the market goes wrong is always huge," said Tim Leunig, a lecturer in the economic history department at London School of Economics. "There will be a lot of bitten fingernails today. It is exactly the same -- you can lose you job, your standard of living and you won't get it back ... that's pressure."

Higher stress levels are forcing banks to boost their employee health services.

Bear Stearns provides a specialist stress consultancy which offers advice, training or counseling for all its employees. In September, Citi launched a Canary Wharf health care center, with a staff of 20 including a nurse, general practitioner, dentist, masseur, chiropodist, chiropractor and occupational health adviser.

"It's not psychiatrists versus the banks," said the Priory's Brener. "It's much better to help them and try and sort out the problems in the workplace than people going off sick for long periods of time."

The best way to avoid stress is to maintain a balance in and outside of working life, he said.