Even before living through the last two years of pandemic-related worry and tragedy, investors and their financial advisors reported feeling more and more stressed.
The War on Stress study released in 2019 by the Financial Planning Association, Janus Henderson Investors and Investopedia showed that 71% of financial advisors and 57% of investors were experiencing an increase in moderate to high levels of negative stress compared to 12 months prior.
The study examined the top personal and professional stressors for both financial advisors and investors. Overall, the study showed that for investors, whose primary concerns center on how to maintain lifetime income that meets expenses, they’re not confident in their own financial knowledge, leading to financial insecurity and increased stress levels. Financial advisors’ top stressors included maintaining profitability and growth, as well as meeting business goals. The study also showed, not surprisingly, a connection between stress and feelings of financial insecurity.
So, discussions about investing, distribution and enjoyment of one’s resources at any stage of life — but especially for those in or near retirement — can create a cauldron of emotions and resulting stress for client and advisor.
Although the War on Stress study has not been updated during the pandemic, “We believe that the results would show a steady increase in stress in both the advisor and client population, especially if given in the last week,” Michael Futterman, head of Knowledge Labs Professional Development at Janus Henderson Investors, told Rethinking65 just after Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine in late February.
“While there has been some more attention given to stress management, the circumstances that continue to trigger a large part of the population are not going away, and in some cases continue to get worse,” he said.
The War on Stress study identified personal health, personal financial situation and personal fulfillment with work as the top three drivers of negative stress for advisors, said Futterman. “Advisors are just like ‘regular people,’” he said, “and the study showed that investors’ stress is driven by very similar ‘triggers’: personal financial situation, career progression and personal health.”
“These are things that we interface with daily — they are front and center in a majority of our interactions — so we develop a level of attention to these things that, for those that lack strategies to address their stress, will draw more negative stress.”
“This relates to another interesting part of the study — that stress creates its own ‘momentum.’ In other words, it will get worse for those that already feel high stress and better for those that feel low stress,” said Futterman.
Then Shift Reactions
There’s no magic bullet to eliminate stress. “Advisors, investors, everyone will experience moments in their lives that are uncomfortable or undesirable — there is no changing that,” said Futterman. “What we are helping people shift is their responses or reactions to these triggers.”
“We can’t change the fact that the markets go up and down, we can’t change the fact that traffic exists and we can’t change the fact that people we love will have health issues,” he said. “What we can change is how we choose the impact of these facts.”
An example he provided is weighing oneself every morning. “When you step on the scale the number is the number — it’s a piece of data,” he said. “If you attach meaning to the up or down — you get excited when the number goes down or upset when it goes up — you are giving power to the fact rather than focusing your energy and attention on a set of more intentional thoughts.”
The Mindfulness Factor
There aren’t any shortcuts to dealing with stress but mindfulness can help, said Mary Martin, PhD, an author and mindfulness educator in Jupiter, Florida. She teaches a course on mindfulness to financial advisors and her book, “Mindfulness for Advisors: Practicing a New Way of Being,” is due out this month by Advisors’ Academy Press.
“Mindfulness and financial advising are not two things people ordinarily put together,” said Martin, yet the guided practice of mindfulness can prepare professionals to respond constructively to worries or anger from clients. Mindfulness involves digging deeper than reaching for external tools and takes hard work, she said, but “It will pay off in all spheres of life; you become the tool.”
“We investigate our moment-to-moment thoughts, sensations, emotions, movement, and sound, and there’s a process for remaining focused, present, and curious. And we don’t push away the ‘bad’ or grasp at the ‘good.’ After all, everything comes and goes if you let it,” she said. Mindfulness helps one develop self-awareness, resilience, good listening skills, and the capacity to “sit with uncertainty, ambiguity and change,” she added.
Move Toward Stress to Handle It
The key to handling stress is to confront it and ‘move toward it,” said Martin. She said while hobbies or avocations such as gardening are good and helpful, don’t expect them to be the cure for stressful situations.
She said stress is “neutral” — not negative or positive. And it all starts in the brain, whose job it is to “regulate” the systems in the body. The brain will follow a well-worn path rather than forge a new, more challenging one to deal with stress. So guided mindfulness can help you build these hardier responses to stress. “We become what we practice,” she said.
In addition, when you are regulated, she said, “you have the energy and resources for you and your client.” She asserts that if, for example, “your client is a mess, you will be too if you don’t have a handle on it.”
When Stress Affects Your Health
Financial advisors regularly give their clients the “caring and latitude” to find personal fulfillment, said Marguerita M. Cheng, CFP, the CEO and co-founder of Blue Ocean Global Wealth in Maryland.
And after coping with a particularly stressful time in her life, she urges advisors to follow their own wisdom and enjoy what makes them happy.
Cheng said she faced the worst day of her life when her father died. The oldest of three sisters, she lived the closest — within walking distance — to her parents’ home in Montgomery County, Maryland. So she was there every day, as well as taking care of her own family of three children and being attentive to her business.
“I was going and going and going,” she recalls, as her father, who was born in China and educated in Taiwan, became ill. Cheng’s mother, who is of Irish and Eastern European background, was 14 years younger than her husband.
After he died in 2015, she would visit her mother basically every day. “Mom was lonely,” she recalls.
The stress of her father’s illness and the aftermath left Cheng unusually fatigued.
“I was super, super tired,” she said. And a visit to her doctor and some tests confirmed she was severely anemic and had chronic exhaustion.
“Then the sweetheart scam hit,” she said.
Going Into Overdrive
Her mother, a still-young, sociable person, using a new iPhone Cheng had given her, met an online “sweetheart” who managed to defraud her of at least $15,000 from her before Cheng was informed of the problem.
“That was the second worst day of my life,” Cheng said, when she received a call from a social worker that her mother was a victim of this scam. An already exhausted Cheng “went into overdrive” to recover the money and recounted her efforts in her own column for Rethinking65 to warn advisors and readers about the pitfalls of such a scam.
The scam coming when it did “overwhelmed” her, she said. “I didn’t intentionally mean to neglect my health,” she recalls. But the emotional strain of resolving the scam coupled with her already weakened vigor made her realize “I had to hit the pause button.”
The Happiness of the Long-Distance Runner
For Cheng, her “pause” wasn’t about sitting on the sofa. Far from it, she found her joy in running – and running far and wide.
So at a not-so-young age and with some asthma, she began running for the first time with her teen daughter, “to do something together,” she said. Her daughter was on a cross-country team. Then that evolved into volunteering to coach running.
“Coach Rita,” as she was dubbed, coached for five seasons and found the fulfillment she needed after a harrowing few years. “It was such a positive experience. It helped me reflect and calm down. It was my time for me,” she said.
That moved Cheng to want to “put more positive energy into the universe.” And so began her avocation of running in charity marathons.
From zero running, to 5Ks, to the 10-mile Cherry Blossom run in Washington, to half marathons, she kept pushing herself. But this was the type of pressure that helped her health and psyche flourish.
Her first marathon – 26.2 miles – was the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C. in 2018. Her team raised $1,500 for programs for disadvantaged youth. Then in quick succession there were marathons in New York City and Chicago, also for fundraising at increasing levels. Her goal is to qualify for the prize of marathons – the Boston Marathon.
“I went from sad and weak to rebuilding my strength,” she said. Running gave her joy, she adds — meeting new people and being part of charity teams that raised many thousands of dollars.
Her family gets in the act, too. Their “run-cations” usually involve landing in the city of the run a day ahead and leaving a day after. That way her family and she can explore a city and she gets time to prepare for the run.
Life’s Vulnerabilities and a Senior Inspiration
Cheng’s journey to becoming a long-distance runner has given her insight into her role as a financial advisor, too.
“I understand when clients feel vulnerable about life changes,” she said, adding that “uncertain times” add to that feeling.
And ageism can be intimidating.
She said when she started her running regimen, although many people were supportive, some were not, pointing out her late start and her asthma and her family responsibilities.
But that didn’t stop her. She also looked to one of her clients who decided to hire a personal trainer to be in her best shape, staving off osteoporosis.
“She was 76 – and an inspiration,” Cheng said.
Patricia McDaniel is a freelance writer and editor and former journalist with Gannett’s New Jersey newspapers. She can be reached at [email protected]