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A Heavy Emotional Price

New research uncovers an issue few are willing to discuss.

Carl Richards, 08/01/2017

We have a problem, and it’s time to get serious about it.

Financial professionals are struggling to handle the emotional stress of their jobs. Think I’m exaggerating? Pause for a minute and consider the primary function of a real financial advisor: It’s to be a release valve for their clients’ anxieties.

We pay a heavy price when we help our clients deal with the irreducible uncertainty that comes with financial planning. Many things are beyond our control, and it’s our job to walk clients in off the financial ledge during scary markets. But as a result, it’s wrecking us emotionally and physically.

I’ve known about this problem for a while now, and it turns out some people a lot smarter than me have figured out what’s happening. Bradley Klontz and Sonya Britt at Kansas State University wondered if financial planners might be experiencing post-traumatic stress after the 2008 financial crisis. So, as part of their research, they conducted a survey and found that:

“Ninety-three percent of financial planners reported medium to high levels of stress…including intrusive thoughts and images, sleep difficulty, feeling numb, attempts to avoid thinking about or getting upset about it, and waves of strong feelings. These symptoms were accompanied by selfblame, negative thoughts about self, negative thoughts about financial institutions, uncertainty about how to help clients.”

Sleep difficulty. Feeling numb. Negative thoughts. Uncertainty.

I’m betting most of you don’t describe your firms or the work you do using those words. But that’s how people are feeling about their financial jobs. Of course, we don’t discuss this problem because we can’t even admit we have one.

Just recently, an advisor reached out to me via email telling me that, after 20 years in the industry, he’s struggling. He doesn’t know what to do about the stress he feels. Why me? Because I suspect that if he went to many other places he’d get told to toughen up. Driven, rational financial advisors don’t talk about things like how they’re feeling.

It’s time to change that attitude throughout the industry, both personally and professionally. Now, I know you may not relate at all to this problem. You’ve got your “feelings” under control. If that’s true, lucky you.

But based on the research by Klontz and Britt, plus the conversations I have with advisors from around the world, it’s a problem growing bigger by the day. So, as the President of Unspeakable Things in the Financial Industry, I’m talking about it. I’m asking you—begging you—to start talking about it, too.

Because the scary markets will return. The fear and anxiety will swell again. We’ll need to walk clients in off the financial ledge. But if we haven’t figured out how to take care of ourselves, it won’t be long before we start peering over our own ledges. And who will be there to walk us back?

Consider this column a call to arms for the people running or working at financial firms, big or small. How should we deal with anxiety and stress when it’s part and parcel of what we do? Because it’s not going to stop, and we don’t want one more skilled professional leaving the industry because it’s become too much.

This article originally appeared in the August/September 2017 issue of Morningstar magazine.

The author is a freelance contributor to MorningstarAdvisor.com. The views expressed in this article may or may not reflect the views of Morningstar.

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