James Bennett looks at stress in actuarial work, and suggests ways that managers can nurture a low-stress environment among employees.
It was when I was finishing university (a few years ago now!) that I first read about actuarial work - described as 'the best job in the world' by The Wall Street Journal. It seemed perfect for a mathematics graduate: interesting work with a good salary and importantly, a low-stress environment. For the most part, that was all true. Is it truly a low-stress environment, though? It doesn't always feel like it when a reporting deadline is looming ever closer.
I doubt any job is truly low stress, especially if you are invested in your career, as many actuaries are. I've known actuaries at different stages of their life, from those just starting out to those preparing for retirement, and I cannot recall a single person who hadn't either experienced stress or seen very clearly the effects of stress on others.
Understanding is the first step. There are so many different aspects of this role that can cause stress to any individual, from the obvious, such as upcoming exams and stretching to meet deadlines, to the less obvious, such as having to talk to a new person or feeling pressured to attend after-work drinks. It's difficult to know what will cause stress and anxiety for another person, and it's vital to remember that just because you are happy with something, it doesn't mean others feel the same.
Why is it important?
Over a working career of 50 years, you can expect to spend about a third of your waking hours at work. Nobody wants to spend that time miserable, worried about what might happen next.
Stress isn't all bad, of course. Sometimes it can be beneficial, helping to drive us forward and progress in our careers. When the stress gets overwhelming and takes over life outside work, however, we need to take a step back. As Dan Hambly, GI chief actuary at LV=, has said, we should be trying to ensure that "students can work sensible hours and have the time out of work to study and have some kind of social life". And don't forget non-students - a social life would be nice for us, too!
Stress can have serious physical effects on the body, too, causing headaches, suppressing the immune system, even increasing the risk of serious health problems such as high blood pressure and heart disease. There are clear consequences, with 21% of employees having called in sick to avoid workplace stress and 14% giving workplace stress as a reason for resigning.
Controlling and avoiding stress within work can result in fewer absences and a more productive environment.
The issue, then, is what we can do about it. Managers have a responsibility when it comes to reducing stress in the workplace and supporting their colleagues. The assumption that stress is unavoidable is an easy trap to fall into, and it's certainly the case that reserve reviews, capital reporting deadlines, change projects and so on are all likely to involve a certain level of stress.
That stress can be managed, though. If the right level of support is in place, the impact of impending deadlines and high workloads can be lessened. It's at these peak times that managers should be more aware of the pressures faced by their team. You can't always rely on people to make it obvious to you that they are feeling the stress, either - Mind, the mental health charity, has found that 30% of employees would not feel able to talk to their line manager if they were feeling stressed.
Perhaps people are concerned about the stigma of admitting to stress, perhaps they feel they don't have the opportunity to share their concerns, or maybe they don't feel their manager is approachable or friendly. It's so important to talk to the people you manage about the pressures they are under. After all, if you aren't talking about it with them, why would they feel it was normal to talk about it with you?
Good communication is key on a day-to-day basis, but that can often be reactionary. Dealing with stress as it comes up is important, of course, but wouldn't avoiding it in the first place be preferable?
Planning is hardly the most exhilarating part of actuarial work (I'll leave you to decide which parts are) but it is essential to ensure that not only is work delivered, but it is done so without negatively impacting the teams involved. It isn't just about having time for deadlines, it's about building a good team to begin with.
Ben Smith, group risk actuary at Admiral, is a big believer in this. "The amount of stress is definitely driven by the quality of people that you have working around you," he says. "If you work with people who you know you can place trust in, that certainly helps to manage stress." So, the keys are to be approachable and friendly, plan ahead and create a high-quality, supportive team. Easy, right?
Of course, there is one aspect of actuarial work that can cause an even greater level of stress: exams.
Here, stress and managing stress becomes much more important. Progressing through the exams is a significant part of an actuarial career, but do we put too much importance on them? "I know people are keen to start on the examinations as soon as possible, but employers might consider telling students not to start studying immediately," Jon Bowers, senior financial risk manager at Lloyds Banking Group, suggests. While some students would be horrified at the idea of not tackling exams immediately, perhaps just knowing that this is an option would help remove some pressure.
Lead from the front
A leader leads by example. If you are working long hours, fighting to meet deadlines and becoming stressed by your work, it's only natural for those emotions to be felt by the colleagues in your team, too.
We must remember that managers are people, too. If you are feeling too much pressure, speak to your own manager and work on reducing it. The example you give will be followed by those around you; the best managers realise this and use it to create the most effective team possible.
Create a team that works hard but also has fun. Maybe that's the way to ensure that the third of your life spent in work is not only bearable, but perhaps even enjoyable!
What you can do if you are feeling stressed
- A moment for meditation - I know, I know - hear me out. Just try it, perhaps in the evenings or after you wake up. Take some time, close your eyes and try to find some perspective.
- Run away from it- Well, not entirely. But some light exercise, perhaps just even a walk around the office, can really help.
- Don't lose your lunch- Take a break - maybe it's only 10 minutes, 30 minutes or the whole hour. But try to get away from your desk and take a breather.
- Shout and scream - Speak to someone! Share your worries and concerns, help the people around you to help you. You may be surprised by what happens.
- Make a 'to do today' list - Task 1: Be less stressed. Fine, it isn't that easy - but getting your tasks down on paper not only helps you focus but can also help when you discuss stress with your manager.
James Bennett is pricing and product development actuary at The Exeter