A depressing job or a job for depressed people?

Frustrated businesswoman

Tess Vigeland: Before we leave the realm of psychology, one more peek into our brains on money. We saw a headline on Health.com the other day: "10 Careers With High Rates of Depression." It was based on a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services survey about drug use. They asked nearly 100,000 people whether they'd had a major depressive episode in the past year. And then they were categorized by job. Among those in the top 10: Folks who work in the financial industry.

We asked Marketplace's Sean Cole to look into it for us.


Sean Cole: I talked with the reporter who wrote the article, Tammy Worth. She said there a few specific ingredients that might make a job more likely to trigger depression. Long, unpredictable hours, for example. And lack of control over the consequences of your actions; in this case, how financial markets perform.

Tammy Worth: Particularly, when there's high demand and low control. Those were some of the things they said typically are maybe more apt to have someone have a depressive episode.

But Tammy's not a therapist. And neither am I. Nor have I ever managed millions of dollars of other people's money. So I found a therapist...

Patrick LaBella: My name is Patrick LaBella I'm a psychoanalyst in private practice.

And a money manager...

Maureen Whelan: My name is Maureen Whelan and I'm a certified financial planner professional.

...And introduced them to each other.

LaBella: Hi Maureen.

Whelan: Hi.

LaBella: I'm Patrick. Nice to meet you.

Whelan: Nice to meet you.

The idea was to have a kind of Oprah-ish discussion and see if we could divine: a) whether financial work can indeed contribute to depression and b) if so, how. Come to find both Patrick and Maureen were the perfect candidates for this exercise. Maureen's been in the financial world for decades, and Patrick has a bunch of financial workers on his client roster.

LaBella: Let's see, two hedge fund managers, an accountant and five or six financial advisors.

He says sometimes, you can chart their mood by what the market does.

LaBella: And if it's doing horribly like in 2009, it's a devastated bunch who come in. But I'm not so sure that I would call them depressed. I would call them maybe, sort of traumatically impulsive, emotionally.

Maureen says her mood doesn't really fluctuate with the Dow. She tends to be pretty conservative with her clients' money. Now and then, though, she worries that some of the middle-aged ones won't have enough to retire on.

Whelan: That gets me a little anxious. I wouldn't say necessarily depressed, but I know depression so, you know, over the years I've figured out how to kind of get myself out of those types of things so.

Cole: And how do you mean you know depression?

Whelan: Well I actually did work in the corporate world in a finance type job accounting type stuff. And I'd say, in my thirties, I guess had what you might call a major depressive episode. That's when I said to myself, "I better go talk to somebody."

This was after two years of suffering clear symptoms of depression -- for instance a tight, perpetual knot in her stomach. Maureen didn't speak up sooner for a couple reasons. One, she says, she's first-generation Irish-American and you just don't talk about such things. Two, she's in finance for heaven's sake.

Whelan: Financial people, certainly I don't think they'd necessarily feel comfortable admitting that they're not always feeling at the top of their game.

LaBella: It is an absolute weakness to have to say to your friends, "Oh I'm headed to my therapist I've gotta leave work early tonight." And these are a bunch of guys sitting around trading desks saying, "Excuse me? Where the heck are you going? Therapy?! What?! We're goin' to the bar! Let's go man!" It's very much frowned upon.

Case in point: Patrick has a client, a broker, who gets ribbed by other guys on the floor for going to therapy. In private though, two of those guys have asked him for Patrick's phone number. But they haven't called yet.

LaBella: You need to be able to ask for help when you need it.

Whelan: Right. I would say I was definitely and probably still am, to some extent, that type of person. Unwilling to ask for help.

Cole: Unwilling to.

Whelan: Yes. Yes.

Cole: Are you, and you're working on that?

Whelan: Um, yes.

Whelan laughs

LaBella: I think it's wonderful that Maureen said that because just her being able to say that tells me that she is working on it.

Cole: So that major depressive episode that you're talking about, would you say that that was directly related to your work?

Whelan: I would say that the work didn't help. But I think it's probably part of who I am no matter what type of work I did.

Turns out Maureen's family has a history of depression. Over the years, she's learned that various aunts, uncles, cousins, all of them seemed to have struggled with it.

Cole: And this is what I wanted to get to 'cause I feel like we're talking about a kind of chicken-and-egg situation. Where it's like, is it the job? Or is it the person? And if it's the job, is it that the job attracts that kind of person, do you know what I mean?

LaBella: I'm so happy you asked that question, because I was looking at this study and I was thinking to myself I would much prefer to read a study that says, "What jobs do depressed people seek out?" There's a characterological level of depression that we're all born with and we pretty much try to improve it throughout our lives, but it's always there.

And that's where we landed. Of course, this is just one discussion, with one therapist and one money manager. Maureen's doing a lot better by the way. Her therapist suggested medication, which is working well. She still gets that tight feeling in her stomach sometimes. But only at appropriate times, she says. Like, while she was on the way over to meet Patrick and me.

In New York, I'm Sean Cole for Marketplace Money.

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