A Drinking Problem on Wall Street

Many financial workers have a higher risk of alcohol abuse, says psychologist Alden Cass, and 9/11 and the Iraq war don't help

You could call Dr. Alden Cass Wall Street's therapist. His client list is chock-full of brokers and analysts, and his portfolio includes sponsored studies documenting mental-health issues in the financial-services sector. And it looks like the Street could use some help. In a July 28 study of alcohol use during and after the Iraq war, Cass, president of consultancy Catalyst Strategies Group, found that both during and after the war, 32% of 151 respondents -- mostly brokers and analysts -- had six or more drinks at least once a week. Fifty-four percent indulged in binge drinking at least once a month.

BusinessWeek's Jessi Hempel recently spoke with Cass about alcohol abuse and mental-health issues on Wall Street: Here are edited excerpts of their conversation:

Q: What did you your research show about Wall Street's recent drinking habits?


Usually, when a traumatic event such as a war happens, people work through the event and then drink afterwards. That's known as the "happy-hour effect." My research contradicted that. I found both during and after this war people drank more heavily.

Q: Why were people drinking heavily shortly after the war in Iraq began?


This war had a saliency for people on Wall Street. September 11 may have happened a couple of years ago, but it's still a very open wound. The attack on Iraq brought up unresolved feelings. People on Wall Street tend to harbor and hide those feelings, and therefore they self-medicate.

Q: Are brokers and analysts more likely to hide their feelings than others?


I believe so. There's a stigma against mental illness on Wall Street. Things like sadness, depression, illness, and anxiety are viewed as a weakness in character or ability. There's a perception that [such things] are bad. Often, people are afraid that if others find out, they'll be fired.

Q: Are these fears justified?


The real issue, whether it be investment banking or retail brokerage work, is that there's [great] job competition out there these days. The basic human-resources perception in these corporations is "If you can't handle the heat, get out of the kitchen. There is someone else who will be willing to deal with the 14-hour workday if you can't handle it."

Q: Who are the people most likely to abuse alcohol?


You see a lot more about mid-20s to early 30s making about $100,000 annually. They're usually single, male, and evenly split between transaction brokers and investment bankers.

Q: Is this more of a problem for people on Wall Street than in other professions?


As far as all the professions go, analysts and brokers have one of the highest [rates of alcohol use] because it's probably most widely accepted. This is what they use to network. It has become culturally accepted in terms of relaxing and kicking back with your colleagues. They've learned to use it as an acceptable means of solving their problems.

Q: You mentioned the happy-hour effect. How does it work?


This has traditionally been understood as the reaction to trauma. People experience a trauma, and then the abuse problems tend to increase after the trauma subsides. Our study contradicted that -- there was significantly more drinking during the war rather than after.

Q: Why would you expect drinking to be less of a problem during the war rather than after?


The war improves our stock market, which gives Wall Streeters their sense of purpose because they're earning money. So these people hide from any feelings first through work. They may be reacting to witnessing [the war] on TV. Work becomes an escape besides drinking -- they were at work more so they couldn't drink as much.

Q: Who are your typical clients?


For the most part, I have 50-year-old men trying to reinvent their careers in transactional brokerage or retail sales. They're people who have gone from making $150,000 to $40,000. Often, they have to put kids through college. They've gotten used to a lifestyle in Westchester County and are now struggling to pay bills and are under great strain -- alcohol problems, marital problems. Once men and women get into their 50s, they don't have many skills that can be used in any other arena.

Q: What advice would you have for a 35-year-old investment banker struggling with burnout, before he or she hits rock bottom?


I would tell them to take inventory of what's important to them, what they value. A person has to have buy-in to what they're doing on a daily basis in terms of putting a value on it. I would tell them to reevaluate what they're doing on a daily basis. What they're doing in a lot of these circumstances is trading their mental health for affluence.

My contention is that people who go into this industry have a certain personality type: Type A, hyperactive, hypomanic personality. They have a grandiosity and...are risk-takers by nature. This risk on a daily basis [is] what keeps them focused. It also puts them more at risk for drugs and alcohol -- a lot of people use amphetamines and cocaine to get through a day. There are individuals who use cocaine to stay up during the day and smoke marijuana to go to sleep at night. You must teach them healthier [lifestyles].

Q: How about the company programs that are available to them?


These programs are underused because people are afraid and a little paranoid it would be looked at in the wrong way by their employers. Even if it's supposedly confidential, people have the perception they could be fired.

Q: Did September 11 have an impact of the perception of mental health on Wall Street?


September 11 put a dent in the wall and made it more allowable for people to show signs of weakness. The key is to take that and continue to normalize it in the industry.

Edited by Thane Peterson

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE