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Commission-based work paired with long, unpredictable hours can be a recipe for burnout. Experienced advisors offer tips on rest, recuperation and productivity

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'This is a tough job, and especially when the markets are acting weird,' says Tony Mahabir, certified financial planner and chief executive officer at Canfin Financial Group of Companies in Toronto.Ivan-balvan

MaryAnn Kokan-Nyhof began her career as a financial planner in 1998 after giving birth to her third child.

“I was breastfeeding my son and working 16-hour days. I had to make phone calls and meet with people or I wasn’t going to get paid,” says Ms. Kokan-Nyhof, recalling how she struggled to build a client roster and earn enough commission to help support her family.

“There were days when I couldn’t even pay for the groceries that I was buying at the supermarket, because I hadn’t made enough commission that week.”

Looking back, Ms. Kokan-Nyhof, now a certified financial planner at Desjardins Financial Security and vice-president of the Kilcona Branch in Winnipeg, says she was experiencing burnout.

Prolonged periods of occupational stress can lead to emotional and physical depletion and, in its most severe form, even dysfunctional behaviour.

The condition is common in many industries, but particularly so in financial planning. The profession is typically commission-based, and involves working long, unpredictable hours that are tied to the performance of the markets. Typically, financial advisors can find themselves replying to clients’ concerns at all times of the day.

“This is a tough job, and especially when the markets are acting weird,” says Tony Mahabir, certified financial planner and chief executive officer at Canfin Financial Group of Companies in Toronto.

Mr. Mahabir, who also serves as chairman of the Canadian Institute of Financial Planning, says he frequently meets advisors who ask for help on balancing their personal and professional lives.

“Money is a sensitive topic, and many times clients panic,” he adds. “And then we also have the legal aspect of this business. When a client phones us, let’s say at 8 in the night or 6 in the morning, unlike taking a phone call from a friend, we have to document what we do, and often times what leads to the burnout is we’re trying to accommodate the clients and to document things properly.”

Many advisors, such as Ms. Kokan-Nyhof, learn to develop strategies to protect their mental health and avoid burnout.

When she is feeling deprived of sleep, the mother of four schedules a nap into her work day.

“I’ll just put a block of time on my calendar and I will go home and I will take a nap, and I will refresh," she says. "If I don’t do that, I know that I’m gonna start falling apart by bits and pieces, and I know that the outcome of that is not healthy for anyone, not me, not my clients, not my family.”

Ngoc Day, a certified financial planner at Macdonald Shymko & Company Ltd. in Vancouver, has found exercise and personal hobbies, such as playing the piano, to be the most effective outlets for releasing stress and finding personal meaning beyond her professional success. She attributes her ability to avoid burnout for the duration of her nearly 20-year career to these activities.

“Every morning I go in and I spend an hour in either the gym or the pool. And I find that really helps set me up right for the day. I find that if I get too busy and I’ll say ‘Oh no, I’ll skip the exercise and I’ll get to work earlier to get ahead in the day,’ I find that by mid-afternoon I’m really tired, I’m not focusing anymore, I’m not fresh anymore.”

Susan Latremoille, wealth advisor and director of wealth management, Latremoille Begg Group, Richardson GMP Ltd., in Toronto, agrees that taking breaks to rest and recuperate is essential not only to avoid burnout, but also to enhance productivity.

“Somehow in our culture, generally we think that if you’re off, that you’re not working,” she says.

“We have this work ethic that means you’ve gotta be there every single day, all day, and even work overtime. ... I would say that people’s productivity declines because they’re burned out; they just can’t handle one more thing, it’s too much. So that’s when things start to fall apart and the work-life balance is gone.”

Time off is “not a reward just because you worked hard, it’s an investment in your productivity,” she adds.

But for some advisors, taking vacations comes with guilt and the fear of disappointing clients. Ms. Kokan-Nyhof is no stranger to these feelings, and admits that in her earlier years she used to feel guilty if she put her personal or familial well-being ahead of her career.

She has learned that most clients are understanding of their advisors’ work-life boundaries, and will respect her need to take time off, as long as she communicates this to them clearly.

“Most people are willing to allow you to have a personal life if you share it with them. In the early years, I used to try to keep a boundary – my personal life is my own life, people don’t need to know where I am,” Ms. Kokan-Nyhof says.

“I’ve come to realize people appreciate when you share that with them, because then you’re more real. You’re a real human being with a real life and a real family and you’re not just some professional sitting at a desk looking after their insurance." She says that sharing can strengthen relationships with clients.

Beyond the tactics she’s accumulated for balancing her life and her schedule, Ms. Kokan-Nyhof says the most important part of doing so is maintaining a mindset of self-confidence and self-care. She’s reached “the best place” she’s ever been in her career by learning to respect her personal values and priorities, and to ignore the instinct to compare herself with her peers. Most importantly, she’s learned that the idea of achieving true balance between work and life is a myth.

“There is no such thing as work-life balance,” Ms. Kokan-Nyhof says. “We all have this myth in our minds that we somehow have to be superwomen and magically be able to balance things ... It’s not going to happen. And the sooner you realize it’s not going to happen, the more focused you can be.”

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