'There's A Cost': CRE’s Mental Health Struggles Hit Early Career Workers Hard

Over the course of her commercial real estate career so far, Beyond Commercial founder Amy Calandrino has felt the strain of hustling in her early years, launching her own business, and navigating the challenges of maintaining a career while raising children and tackling postpartum depression. 

The Orlando, Florida-based Calandrino realized in recent years that she was continually chasing more volume and more deals, aggressively growing her boutique firm and doubling deal volume in a year, yet that pursuit wasn’t bringing her success or happiness.

“I didn’t want to go to my church because I didn’t want people to find out how unhappy I was,” she said. “I wasn’t being honest even with my best friends about how unhappy I was. The more and more I did, the more unhappy I was, and I had to make a change.” 

She found that setting more boundaries around time, for her and her employees, and being more selective about who she works with helped relieve stress and burnout without, in the end, sacrificing much business.  

“Early in your career, you feel like you have to do everything,” Calandrino said. “And there’s a cost to it.”

Calandrino's experience is a familiar one for commercial real estate professionals, especially younger ones, who are facing mental health challenges as they look for success in the notoriously grinding profession that is CRE.


But now, during a period of job losses and belt-tightening, some of the gains around workplace mental health are in danger of being lost. 

“It’s inevitable that it's not going to get the attention it needs because a lot of people in our line of work are in survival mode,” said Isabella Zelinger, a 28-year-old senior adviser and broker at Cresa’s Orange County office.

And according to CRE professionals interviewed for this article, this is happening just as a diverse group of employees starting out in the industry needs guidance, support and — what could be considered a challenge to the industry’s recruitment prospects — a reason to stay or consider CRE careers in the first place.  

“Young professionals are weighing an opportunity,” Kincaid said. “They want to know what the path is before they've come in and proven themselves.”

Roughly 1 in 4 workers in the sector suffer mental health problems, according to new joint research by Cambridge University and University College London that surveyed 20,000 Britons. A Baylor University report broadly categorized the myriad industry and transaction stressors at play in the CRE environment, especially for brokers and those working on commission, such as market cycles, negotiating, “long hours dealing with emotional, tense clients” and “external events that, while out of your control, determine your ability to complete a transaction.” 

“It’s easy to start thinking, ‘Am I failing? Am I doing this right? Am I going to make it?’” Zelinger said. “Especially if you don’t have a mentor who’s coaching you. That’s why people leave the business, because they can’t mentally weather that.”

Generational differences often make it difficult for younger workers to speak up about mental health concerns. Generally in American society, a tide is turning toward more open communication about these issues, but for many older people, the instinct remains to simply be quiet and push through — to toughen up.

“Old-time people will say, ‘Well, they just didn't have what it takes. They didn’t have the stamina,’” Zelinger said, referring to critiques of younger CRE employees burning out and abandoning the industry. “I beg to differ. I think a lot of the people who ‘weathered it’ before, maybe they had a support system where they had parents who were paying their bills while they were figuring it out.”

The silence of significant sectors of older CRE employees around mental health and the unwillingness to discuss what some see as a weakness is detrimental, said Casey Flannery, senior associate at Nashville, Tennessee-based industrial brokerage Foundry Commercial and co-host of #CREChat on Twitter. Younger workers approach their roles with a better sense of work-life balance, she said, and sadly, they often get put in a place where they need to advocate for change. 

“Big groups in CRE need to implement changes to accommodate more employees and get younger employees into commercial real estate,” Flannery said. “It’s going to be hard to retain the talent if they have a superior who expects them to work 24/7.”

The kinds of workplace stressors described only make it harder to recruit and retain young workers in the profession. Those who have started in recent years, during abrupt changes in workplace rules and remote work, have had it even harder. 

In particular, mentorship and support were cited by organizations like the Commercial Real Estate Women Network as challenges and barriers to women’s success in CRE. The group’s last report found that while 76% of respondents said their companies have policies or benefits to support employee mental health and well-being, the overwhelming majority still wished their workplaces would offer more mental health benefits, followed by mental health days and therapy. 

Zellinger, who said she had the benefit of a good mentor, said it was still extremely challenging to feel successful early in her career. A self-described “competitive and self-motivated” worker, she had many moments early in her career where she lost a deal to someone who might have looked more like the client or had decades of business experience. In those situations, it’s easy to go home and “feel like the game is rigged,” she said. 

“We have a massive problem in how we communicate to new young talent what our business is,” Zellinger said. “And for a long time, the commercial real estate industry got by on hiring out of relationships, which is why you see a massive, systematic problem. Everyone's fraternity brothers hire their fraternity brothers, kids, and it just was a bad cycle.”


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