Coping With Stress as Markets Quake

Szifra is quoted in this article at Financial Adviser – a blog by Dow Jones.

by Thomas Coyle

June 12, 2012

Here is a story, courtesy of psychologist Szifra Birke, of how one financial adviser literally started adding a little color to his dark days.

It was late in 2008, and for the past few months of market turmoil, the owner of a small investment-adviser boutique had been scrambling to keep clients calm in meetings, over the phone, via email and through regular bulletins.

He had just reeled off an especially dour outlook piece, and decided it needed something to enliven the page. He was about to search for a picture or drawing online, when he thought: I’ll draw it myself. So a professional numbers man with no art training grabbed a sheet of copy paper, cleared off a spot on his desk, and quickly drew a childish picture of a cat using blue and red ballpoint pens. He scanned the picture, dropped it into the bulletin, hit “send” and went about his business.

From then on, he illustrated all his bulletins and group emails; crudely, without explanation, and to his own deep delight. Now, along with the usual office equipment, he keeps crayons and colored pencils.

The point isn’t whether these drawings are any good, or whether they help him reach clients, says Birke, who helps financial-service executives work and communicate better. “He is taking a break from a stressful routine by doing something that makes him really happy,” she says.

“It’s like a switch goes on when he talks about it, his level of joy just shoots up, and he’s happier at his job because of it.”

Ms. Birke says other advisers should be looking for their own creative ways to cope with stress, as another spate of volatility strikes a stock market that has seen little peace in the past four years. Eleven of the 20 sharpest single-day drops in the S&P 500’s 55-year history have occurred since September 2008, along with seven of the 20 biggest one-day upswings.

Notoriously, this choppiness has shaken investor confidence in capital markets. And this, in turn, is having an impact on advisers, according to James Grubman, a psychologist in Turner Falls, Mass., who works with wealthy families and their advisers.

“If a client has been battered in the markets, he’s feeling very cautious,” he says. “And if he is dealing with an adviser who is more focused on facts and logic versus strong client-relationship skills, they could both be feeling very frustrated,” he says.

Dr. Grubman has noticed a generational divide between advisers who started out 20 or 30 years ago and those who became advisers since the late 1990s. The first group, reared in a bull market, has a hard time bearing bad news and sobering insights. Millennial-era advisers are more comfortable in that role because all but three or four of the past 12 years have been “down” periods.

“It’s what they know best,” says Dr. Grubman. “They’re wired for difficult markets.”

Another difference shows up in how they present investment opportunities. A bull-market veteran is apt to launch into an enthusiastic pitch, as in the old days–and hit a wall of risk aversion. A post-millennium adviser is likely to start by talking of the need for caution, and then mention the opportunity as something perhaps worth considering as a sideline play.

Ms. Birke, who is based in Chelmsford, Mass., says both groups can learn to manage stress and be better advisers as a result. This includes basics like exercising, eating sensibly, getting enough sleep and “unplugging,” like our amateur artist, at regular intervals during the work day to do something fun and refreshing.

Advisers can also cut through stress-inducing pretense by talking more openly about their feelings.

“You can tell your clients that helping them achieve their goals and be happy is very important to you, a big motivator,” says Ms. Birke. “Clients respond very well to messages like this–though when you say it, you should seem very solid and competent and not desperate.”