All in the mind: dealing with private clients’ mental burdens

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With the largest cost of living crisis of the 21st century and a tragic war at the heart of Europe, rich people’s problems are bottom of the list for most of us.

Yet financial advisers and other professionals working with this elite are aware the wealthy may face unique internal struggles. Caring about their emotional wellbeing, helping identify core values and develop their legacy may benefit not only their clients and families, but wider society too. And it also makes business sense for the banks. 

The wealthy may experience “anxiety, depression, lack of purpose and a sense of guilt, as well as isolation”, explains Pam Lucina, chief fiduciary officer of Northern Trust Wealth Management in the US. “These are not subjects they readily talk about with their peers, which compounds all these feelings.”

Those most at risk tend to be “unprepared recipients of sudden wealth”, such as next gen inheritors. “Many feel it is a burden they didn’t ask for and feel the weight of the world on their shoulders for having received something they didn’t earn. If there are existing mental health issues, sudden wealth tends to exacerbate them,” explains Ms Lucina. Wealth impacts all their relationships, often creating trust issues. 

northern trust’s Five secrets that lead to successful families 

  1. Silence does not make issues go away
  2. Resist the carrot and the stick approach
  3. Communicate – often, and in numerous ways
  4. Develop financial skills to meet each family member where they are
  5. Anticipate conflict and find common ground

It is crucial private bankers help families communicate across generations, highlighting examples of wealth transitioned successfully, and empathetically to inheritors, says Ms Lucina. At the US bank, advisers strive to provide bespoke financial education for everyone in the family “to normalise discussions around money”, help make family decisions and create healthy attitudes toward wealth and wellbeing. 

Northern Trust employs psychologists and behavioural scientists as part of the team to support clients. Those “really struggling with family dynamics and governance” are referred on to appropriate therapists.

This partnership between private bankers and psychotherapists is a relatively new trend, says Clay Cockrell, a psychotherapist with more than 25 years’ experience, and founder of the Walk and Talk Therapy in New York. 

Specialised in issues facing ultra-high net worth individuals and families, Mr Cockrell says clients of both boutiques and large private banks, including Goldman Sachs, are referred to him for support, once bankers realise “they are not equipped to deal with clients’ mental health struggles, so they can focus on what they are good at, which is managing money”.

Park life

Strolling in Central Park, clients talk to him about finding a purpose in life, after inheriting money or selling their business. Others struggle with guilt and being judged by their peers, aware of animosity and lack of understanding towards them, which can contribute to isolation.

Some worry that wealth may lead to entitled children, afflicted by lack of ambition, rejecting the idea of working or attending college. This wide range of issues explains why his clients are across the age spectrum, from late teens to individuals in their 80s. 

The wealthy are often shamefully aware their issues are “first world problems” but it is important to “normalise” their problems and treat them as such. Using cognitive behavioral therapy, Mr Cockrell helps clients develop tools to manage “stressors” in their life and set goals to move them forward. 

“A big part of happiness is to find purpose and explore options,” he says. “But they have more resources and more options, which can be challenging.”

A quantitative financial plan must be based on sound qualitative work to be sustainable, believes Jamie Traeger-Muney, a PhD in clinical psychology and founder of consulting firm Wealth Legacy Group in Israel. 

As a coach, she works with wealthy people on their qualitative plan, exploring the emotional impact of money on their lives, helping create their “wealth philosophy”, by defining the purpose they want the wealth to serve. “I help clients concretise their values, develop and create their legacy for the future and then use the resources in the service of those goals,” she says. 

Before making Aliyah from the US with her husband 14 years ago, Ms Traeger-Muney worked as a family wealth consultant at Wells Fargo’s Family Wealth Group, serving families with $50m and above in investable assets.

At that time, in 2007, it was “groundbreaking” for private banks to hire a wealth psychologist to work with clients, while she also supported private bankers, helping them make new sales and onboard clients. Today it is “fairly standard” for wealth managers and private banks, especially those with multi-family office platforms, to employ individuals with knowledge about family dynamics and wealth psychology. 

Ms Traeger-Muney’s work with wealthy individuals helps advisers, lawyers and wealth planners do their job more effectively with their clients, once they have a “clearer picture of where the client has been, where they want to go and how to help them get there”. And clients engage with their advisers more easily too. 

It is not the “money, wealth and privilege” that cause mental health issues, but rather the “lack of ability in our modern-day world to have a safe place to openly talk about these issues,” she adds, warning against “armchair psychologists”. 

Internal peace

European private banks, however, are not so keen to work with wealth therapists or consultants, with many in denial about problems their clients may be experiencing. 

“What I would like to see is family offices and wealth managers having trained psychotherapists at hand, to talk directly with clients or support their people, especially when issues are more complex than wealth managers or lawyers should expect themselves to be able to deal with,” says Amanda Falkson, a psychotherapist in the City of London for the past 18 years.

There is always that belief that money is going to make us happy, and it can make life easier. But it can also throw a person off course

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Amanda Falkson, psychotherapist

Her clients are predominantly wealthy individuals, wrestling with unforeseen consequences of major transitions in their lives, be it the sale of a business, divorce, or inheritance. “There is always that belief that money is going to make us happy, and it can make life easier,” says Ms Falkson. “But it can also throw a person off course.” 

She focuses on the three concepts of “meaning, purpose and structure” which people need to feel “stable and content”, believing people should strive for contentedness and “internal peace”, rather than happiness, which is more difficult to achieve.

Her approach starts with exploring her clients’ dreams and wishes as children, finding many have been “moulded to fit a family structure, to meet family’s expectations”, rather than choosing a different route. Sometimes, via therapy, clients can change careers or start a new business, more in line with their original wishes. Ms Falkson also acts as a “sounding board for clients in big decision making”, being completely neutral, “with no axe to grind”, her only objective being to help find “clarity and peace of mind”.

Surrounded by empathy

At Coutts, private bankers understand the importance of talking to clients about sensitive topics, such as how their family needs to prepare for the impact of wealth. 

“Clients are really grateful they can have this type of discussion with their banker, it’s a real game changer,” says Greg Kyle-Langley, head of entrepreneurs’ proposition at Coutts. “Many clients just aren’t interested in the basic private banker connection around products and investment returns.”

Bankers, on their side, greatly appreciate the training offered by their bank, helping them understand what emotional type of client they are dealing with and the best way to service them. 

“As a professional adviser, it’s important to be flexible, empathetic, and understand your clients’ wealth, and what difference it will make to their relationship with it. I don’t think you need trained therapists to have empathy,” says Victoria Papworth, philanthropy adviser at Coutts, where bankers do not refer clients to therapeutic services. 

At the UK bank, great care is taken to “surround the client” with a bespoke, empathetic team, capable not only of building a philanthropic strategy, but also helping manage anxieties about wealth with practical and structured conversations about its purpose. 

“Creating a shared vision of the future of your wealth with your family is fundamental,” she says, adding that issues around succession planning need to be tactfully discussed, rather than swept under the carpet. 

“Trying to avoid family conflict by having open and trusting family conversations is the only way to start building that shared vision,” believes Ms Papworth.

Heirs and graces

Yet, Coutts bankers found 52 per cent of their clients have not involved family heirs in discussions about purpose of wealth, and 66 per cent have not had conversations with heirs about managing family wealth. 

“This is a huge, missed opportunity not just to create better social impact, but also to create better, stronger families, knowing how conscious the next generation are about wanting to have a practical and positive impact on the world,” she says.

Coaching and mentoring next gen clients is also key to help understand not only the transactional nature of wealth but also emotions around the success of their parents, how their friends might react to them and their own relation to wealth, including questions having an impact on their self-esteem.

Private banks can leverage their position by putting together individuals with similar interests, passions, and issues, where they can also “safely have rich people’s problem conversations, and where they don’t have to keep caveating everything with how privileged they are and how lucky they’ve been,” says Coutts’ Mr Kyle-Langley.

Be it through dinners, events, or client networking apps, these initiatives allow clients to share experiences and expertise, learn from others and feel part of the community, according to Coutts. 

Advisers contribute to clients’ emotional wellbeing, ventures Ms Papworth, by equipping them with tools to manage conversations of honesty and trust, “giving them the comfort that they have agency, and the ability to have a positive impact on their family’s future and the world”.  

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