The mind wraps itself around losing a job, one of life's great traumas, in jagged and swerving fits. When the call comes in, when rumor turns to reality, when it's not the broker in the next cubicle but you who are presented with a stack of severance papers, the psyche takes over.
It goes numb. It goes into survival mode. Fear quickly turns into anger. For some, there may be relief in saying goodbye to what therapists call the “psychological terror” that has haunted the corridors of troubled financial institutions since last summer. But what follows — the unknown — may be no less frightening.
Since August, banks worldwide have announced plans to eliminate as many as 65,000 jobs. Many losing their jobs now have lived through other crises on Wall Street — the 1987 market crash, the widespread layoffs of the early 1990s and the financial upheaval of 1998. But investment bankers, recruiters and psychologists say the current economic downturn, the cascade of layoffs and the steady beat of grim financial news have exacted an especially daunting psychic price.
“These are people’s lives,” said an investment banker in his 30s who was laid off in November from his job at a Bank of America office in New York. “It’s not head count. We’re not cattle.”
Like other employees interviewed for this article, the Bank of American employee spoke on the condition of anonymity. He and several others who were laid off said that under the terms of their severance packages, they are not permitted to sue the company or to speak out negatively about it.
In an e-mail message, Bank of America said: “Job reductions are sometimes a necessary course of business, but they are never easy, whether you are receiving the message or delivering it. We always try to be as respectful as possible.”
Even for some of those who survive a job cut, the emotional landscape can change.
“It’s like I woke up and I’m in a different country,” said a person who has worked for Merrill Lynch for more than two decades and has weathered a recent round of layoffs there.
He described widespread anger, mistrust and angst at Merrill, both among those leaving and those staying.
“People are reeling,” he said. “The culture has turned. It is a nasty culture.”
Merrill Lynch laid off 20,000 people in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and while many Wall Street workers say the deaths of co-workers were a shattering experience, they draw a distinction between banks’ actions then and now. Merrill has laid off 4,000 employees this year. In this round, “these were self-inflicted wounds,” the Merrill employee said.
The Merrill banker spoke on the condition of anonymity, saying the company does not permit employees to speak to reporters without permission, and he said he feared retribution if he sought that permission or identified himself.
Officials at Merrill Lynch declined to comment.
Among the patients who have seen Alden Cass, a psychologist who treats Wall Street traders and executives, are several who were laid off from Bear Stearns after the bank collapsed.
“They felt as if they were led with blindfolds on into a firing squad,” Cass said.
Officials at JPMorgan Chase & Co, which is acquiring Bear Stearns, declined to comment.
Cass and other psychologists and researchers who have worked with Wall Street employees say that these workers — often drawn to the intensity and volatility of their profession — are more prone to anxiety, depression, substance abuse and other mental stresses than the general population. They drive themselves hard. Working 10, 12, 14 hours a day is not only expected; it is also a badge of honor.