Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Psychological Burnout and Trading: Five Signs

When I first began working with traders professionally, I noticed a curious phenomenon: Many of the traders who were in the most objective trouble in their careers (i.e., at risk of getting fired from their firms) actually worked less hard at their trading than when they were making money. They insisted that they wanted to succeed as traders, but their actions spoke otherwise. They watched markets without putting on trades; they left the office early; they stopped doing their research and keeping their journals.

What I realized was that these traders were burned out psychologically. They were physically and emotionally overloaded and simply could not sustain the efforts required to come back from their deficits. It wasn't a matter of motivation. Quite literally, they didn't have enough psychological fuel left in their tanks.

Research finds that burnout has very real--and dangerous--health consequences for people. These physiological effects affect brain function and contribute to further exhaustion, creating a vicious cycle. My experience has been that, once traders in trouble hit a burnout stage, it is very rare for them to come back. This suggests that early identification of burnout symptoms and preventive measures may be instrumental in prolonging the health and wealth of traders.

So what are some of the early warning signs of burnout among traders? These come immediately to mind:

1) Loss of Motivation - This is experienced as just not caring as much as they used to. It's also expressed as avoidance of work tasks.

2) Cynicism - The trader in burnout feels that nothing will work out right; the market is out to get him. There is a palpable sense of hopelessness in later stages.

3) Exhaustion - This is experienced both physically and emotionally. Traders know they should work on their situation, but just can't muster the energy.

4) Sleep Disruptions - The trader who is burning out may oversleep or display insomnia and chronic tiredness.

5) Substance Abuse - Traders in early burnout stage may try to self-medicate to feel better and to escape their situations. Food may also serve as a refuge.

I recommend a several step program for traders who are burning out:

1) Take a Break - The worst thing a trader can do is feel guilty and try to force themselves to work harder. Burnout is not laziness, and it will not go away with willpower. Getting away from work stress and attending to good sleeping and eating patterns can help provide the energy for a comeback.

2) Get Help - Sometimes what looks like burnout can be a different problem: depression or an endocrine imbalance. Getting a medical workup is important to rule out physical causes of fatigue. If the problem indeed turns out to be burnout, short-term counseling/therapy can be very helpful in getting a handle on situations that feel overwhelming.

3) Regain Control - A common denominator in much burnout is a perceived loss of control over one's situation. Setting reasonable work goals, managing time effectively and reasonably, and finding elements in the situation that can be controlled all can be very helpful. By keeping goals modest and building small success experiences, traders can regain optimism and energy.

Burnout is common within high stress, high demand, fast paced fields, such as ambulance/EMT work; nursing; military combat; and medical residencies. By recognizing that burnout is a potential occupational hazard, traders can take a preventive stance by keeping expectations realistic and getting plenty of time away from work, in activities they enjoy and can control.

If you are no longer enjoying your trading; if you respond to losses but get little enjoyment from gains; if you stop caring about your work; or if you are just too overloaded to get the work done, consider the possibility of burnout. Renewing yourself early in the process can save a career.


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