The "ticking timebomb" of burnout in banking compliance jobs

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Junior investment bankers aren’t the only ones suffering from burnout in Asian financial services. Growing workloads triggered by constant regulatory change are causing more compliance professionals in the region to resign, sometimes before they’ve even bagged another job.

“This year we’re interviewing stressed and burnt-out compliance professionals on a daily basis. The dream job they took on not long ago for a dramatic salary increase has now become a nightmare,” says Pathay Singh, managing director of search firm The Compliance Grid in Hong Kong. “[efc_twitter text="We often see people on the brink of a complete meltdown – stress in the compliance sector is a ticking time-bomb"].”

This time last year most compliance professionals wanted to move roles to clinch pay rises, which often topped 30%, and because of the sheer number of vacancies on offer. “Now they’re motivated more by workload issues and lack of support. This is causing real churn in the job market, with push factors for people leaving now outweighing the pull factors of a new position,” says Singh.

“Compliance professionals typically start looking for a new job when they feel overworked and under-resourced,” says Vi-Linh Ha, senior consultant, banking and financial services, at recruiters Ambition in Singapore. “So they’re asking questions about the size of the compliance team at other banks and the overall duties to ensure they have the support and capacity to perform well.”

Despite increased compliance staffing in Asia – Standard Charted and HSBC were among those to ramp up their teams in the region last year – regulatory workloads have generally risen faster than headcounts. Talent shortages in Hong Kong and Singapore make it hard for banks to hire, heaping more pressure on existing employees.

“Compliance candidates tell me they’re working longer and longer hours. They complete their BAU roles during the day and then read new regulatory requirements, which are complex documents to digest, especially after a long day at work,” says Ha. “Being the point of contact for regulators and auditors also creates stress since they need to face-off with regulators and provide feedback to the business, who may or may not be receptive to it.”

Such are the current levels of workplace stress that an increasing number of Asian compliance officers are resigning without securing new work – a previously uncommon occurrence in a risk-adverse profession, says Christina Ng, executive director at LMA Recruitment in Singapore.

Some of these people – recruiters put the figure as high as 30% – are also taking career breaks of several months. “While there are more stressed out compliance people in Singapore than ever before, the big recent salaries rises mean they can save up and prepare to take some time off,” explains Ng. “I now see compliance people who’ve been out of work for four months and haven’t even bothered to update their CVs – that would have been unusual just a year or so ago.”

Few compliance professionals in Asia, however, are thinking of leaving the lucrative profession for good – most remain hopeful of eventually finding a less stressful compliance job. “Overwork is actually leading them to explore other opportunities within compliance,” says Oliver Allcock, manager, legal and compliance, at recruiters Robert Walters Hong Kong. “Options to reduce stress might include joining a more established platform or somewhere with better compliance monitoring systems and less personal liabilities. The size of the team and culture of the business is also an important factor.”

Some compliance candidates are moving to a different type of financial institution, adds Ha from Ambition, with private banking and asset management the most popular options because compliance jobs in those sectors tend to be “more generic”.

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