Hector Sants, stress and the pressure cooker of compliance

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Hector Sants, former chief executive of the Financial Services Authority and recently-anointed head of compliance at Barclays, has taken the remainder of 2013 off after suffering from stress and exhaustion, according to a statement from the bank.

Sants is not the first high-powered banking executive to be signed off for stress – Lloyds’ chief executive Antonio Horta-Osorio took two months off at the end of 2011 having suffered from sleep deprivation and exhaustion. However, Sants is surely one of the highest profile figures from the compliance department to leave because a stress-related illness. He is expected to return to work in January.

Sants has had a busy start to his tenure, which covers compliance, governance and regulatory relations, having to battle the legal storm around Barclays’ involvement in Libor-rigging, regulatory pressures on the banking sector and increased demands on the compliance departments from the investment banking business. What’s more, this follows a stint leading the FSA during a period of change.

Stress in the financial sector has been on the up in recent years, not least because of the seemingly ever-present threat of redundancy hanging over investment bankers. Financial professionals have been checking into psychologist clinics with a range of anxiety-related ailments, from panic disorders to psychogenic pain conditions.  However, the majority of these cases have been people working in front office positions.

Sants’ case may be unique, but it also demonstrates the increasing pressure being placed on compliance professionals. Compliance is a red hot area to work, particularly advisory compliance, financial crime and client assets (CASS). Banks like JPMorgan and HSBC are making public statements on plans to bolster compliance headcount by thousands of people.

However, the recruitment process is also painfully slow. Banks are recruiting specialists, wanting their new hires to be the best of the best, taking them through interview processes that incorporate HR, senior business professionals and lawyers and legal teams, which means it's up to six months before an offer is extended.

In the meantime, compliance teams are creaking under the pressure, particularly as the business places ever-more demands on the division and working there is becoming more high-profile.

What once was a relatively low-profile middle-office role that paid well has now become a pressure cooker. Compliance officers are the new ‘power brokers’ of Wall Street, according to Reuters, with more power and sway over employers as demand exceeds supply. JPMorgan is trying to sex up the division by hiring for what it calls a ‘global head of financial crimes SWAT team’.

No wonder it’s become a more stressful place to work.

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