The business case for staff mental health care

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As 2024 approaches and Covid lockdowns recede further into memory, companies everywhere are trying to establish a new normal. Some top Wall Street firms have opted for five full days back in the office. Others see a competitive advantage in offering permanent teleworking, or a careful hybrid of the two.

But some changes in workplace culture won’t go away. A decades-long shift in the way employers and employees interact has accelerated. Workers who once hid their personal struggles with stress, depression and anxiety are now more comfortable sharing and asking for help.

Rather than abating with the pandemic, requests for workplace support are still on the rise, and many employers are beginning to see such offers as a way to woo and retain workers. That means white-collar managers have to deal with mental health and work-life balance issues, whether they like it or not.

Examples are everywhere, but the change is particularly marked in the financial services sector. Historically, this line of work has demanded punishing hours and many such companies have led the push to get employees back into the office.

But change is happening. The Bank of New York Mellon recently boosted the number of free therapy sessions available to employees without a formal referral process from five to 12, and Goldman Sachs is rolling out training on mental health issues to everyone of line managers at the beginning of next year.

It is not just a matter of generosity or fatherhood. The World Health Organization estimates that 12bn working days worth $1tn per year in productivity are lost annually to depression and anxiety. And in the US, about a quarter of all adults have suffered from a mental illness in the past year, as in 2021. Young people aged 18 to 25 are more than twice as likely more likely to report symptoms than those over 50: 36 percent versus 14 per cent.

Employers report that providing mental health care helps reduce absenteeism and prevent long-term illness. We need to foster a culture where people are encouraged to talk about their challenges and raise their hands when they need help, said Jacqueline Arthur, Goldman’s chief human resources officer. Early intervention is really key.

Surveys also suggest that workers place great emphasis on mental health support when choosing their employer: 81 percent said in a recent Harris poll that it would be an important consideration in their next job search

Not everyone sees this as positive. The Economist recently warned a leader that awareness campaigns are leading Britons to conflate normal responses to life’s difficulties with mental health disorders. There is also some private grumbling among senior bankers and investors. Many of today’s leaders survived brutal apprenticeship programs involving 100-hour weeks, merciless teasing and flying staplers.

While no one wants to go back to open misogyny and bullying, they admit to finding today’s 20-somethings a little mollycoddled. When a group of Goldman Sachs analysts put together a PowerPoint complaining of overwork at the height of the 2021 investment banking boom, opinion on Wall Street was decidedly divided as to whether they were expressing a legitimate complaint or snowflakes who must find other careers.

If such complaints sound familiar, they are. Thirty years ago, books like Listening to Prozac warned that the then-new antidepressants would remake people’s personalities and lead to cosmetic pharmacology that pumps drugs into people who aren’t really bad. Indeed, the spread of antidepressant use and improved coverage of mental health care is credited with a marked drop in suicide rates in the US in the 1990s, although deaths have gradually increased since then.

These days, human resources departments say that employees are seeking support earlier, before they become seriously ill. Many younger workers come from universities where mental health services are readily available and expect similar support at work.

Take-up remains high for Covid-era innovations such as online talk therapy, mindfulness and meditation apps, as well as wellness days that allow time to recharge. In the past, people used services in a moment of crisis. Now people are getting a little tune-up, said Sharyn Jones, BNY Mellons interim co-head of talent.

But many older people remain uncomfortable discussing, let alone seeking help for, mental health issues. That puts the onus on companies to create an environment where such conversations are welcome. The rapid proliferation of voluntary employee workshops and first responder programs for mental health as well as physical first aid are positive steps.

But none of this will work without a culture change. Citigroup and BNY Mellon took action this month by suspending office requirements for the last two weeks of December and urging employees to use the period to recharge. There’s a certain humanity associated with letting people know that they’re also focusing on their lives, especially at important times of the year, BNY Mellon chief executive Robin Vince said in a recent interview.

Stiff upper lip traditionalists may cringe, but encouraging self-care is smart business when human talent is still the most important expense.

brooke.masters@ft.com

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