Business model for taking care of staff’s mental health

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As 2024 approaches and Covid lockdowns recede into memory, businesses everywhere are trying to create a new normal. Some top Wall Street firms have opted for five full days back at the office. Others see a competitive advantage in offering permanent remote work or a careful combination of the two.

But some workplace culture changes won’t go away. The decades-long change in the interaction between employers and employees has accelerated. Employees who previously kept their personal struggles with stress, depression, and anxiety hidden now feel much more comfortable sharing and seeking help.

Instead of the demand waning with the pandemic, the demand for workplace support continues to grow, and many employers are beginning to see such offers as a way to attract and retain employees. This means that white-collar workers have to deal with mental health and work-life balance issues, whether they want to or not.

There are examples everywhere, but the change is particularly strong in the financial services sector. Historically, this job has required punishing hours, and many such companies led the push to get workers back into the office.

But change is happening. Bank of New York Mellon recently increased the number of free therapy sessions for employees without a formal referral process from five to 12, and Goldman Sachs will provide mental health training for all line managers early next year.

This is not just about generosity or paternalism. The World Health Organization estimates that 12 billion working days, worth $1 billion in productivity per year, are lost each year due to depression and anxiety. And in the United States, about a quarter of all adults suffered from a mental illness last year, as in 2021. Young people aged 18 to 25 were more than twice as likely as those over 50 to report symptoms: 36 percent vs. 14 percent. cents.

Employers report that mental health care helps minimize absenteeism and prevent long-term illnesses. We need to foster a culture where people are encouraged to talk about their challenges and raise their hand when they need help, says Goldman HR Director Jacqueline Arthur. Early intervention is really important.

Research also suggests that employees now place significant emphasis on mental health support when choosing their employer: 81 percent said in a recent Harris poll that it will be an important consideration in their next job search.

Not everyone sees this as a positive. The Economist recently warned in an editorial that information campaigns were leading Britons to conflate normal responses to life’s difficulties with mental disorders. There is also quite a bit of private grumbling among senior bankers and investors. Many of today’s leaders survived grueling apprenticeship programs that included 100-hour work weeks, merciless bullying and flying the stapler.

While no one wants a return to overt misogyny and bullying, they admit they find today’s 20-somethings a little scary. When a group of Goldman Sachs analysts put together a PowerPoint complaining about overtime at the height of the 2021 investment banking boom, opinion on Wall Street was decidedly divided as to whether they were raising a valid complaint or snowflakes who should find a different career.

If these kinds of complaints sound familiar, they are. Thirty years ago books such as I’m taking Prozac warned that the then-new antidepressants would remake human personalities and lead to a cosmetic pharmacology that pumped drugs into people who weren’t really sick. In fact, the widespread use of antidepressants and improvements in mental health coverage are credited with a significant drop in US suicides in the 1990s, although the number of deaths has gradually increased since then.

Today, HR departments say employees are asking for support earlier, before they become seriously ill. Many younger workers have come from universities where mental health services are readily available and expect similar support at work.

Innovations from the Covid era, such as online speech therapy, mindfulness and meditation apps, and wellness days that allow free time to recharge, are still widely used. In the past, people used services in times of crisis. Now people are getting a bit of a boost, says Sharyn Jones, BNY Mellons’ interim head of talent.

Yet many older people do not know how to talk about mental health problems, let alone seek help. This places an obligation on companies to create an environment where such discussions are welcome. The rapid spread of volunteer worker workshops and mental health first aid programs, as well as physical first aid, are positive steps.

But none of this will work without a culture change. Citigroup and BNY Mellon each took action this month, suspending office requirements for the last two weeks of December and telling workers to use the time to recharge. There’s a certain humanity in allowing people to also make sure they’re focused on their lives, especially during important times of the year, BNY Mellon CEO Robin Vince said in a recent interview.

Stiff upper lip tradition party supporters may be startled, but encouraging self-care is smart business when human talent is still the most significant expenditure item.

brooke.masters@ft.com

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