Why mental health is a sustainability issue for companies - Banking, Regulation & Risk -
Silvia Pavoni teaser

Amid lockdown, mental health is finally getting a higher profile. If this leads to a normalisation of discussions at work around mental wellbeing, companies can only benefit, writes Silvia Pavoni.

The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted an issue that has been laying low, often silently, in corporate life: mental health. It is hard to talk about the implications of Covid-19 on banking, finance and the wider economy without addressing people’s mental, as well as physical, wellbeing. Health concerns and feelings of isolation compound ‘regular’ stress at work.

But the current crisis is also making mental health a more common topic of discussion in daily interactions, notes Poppy Jaman, chief executive of City Mental Health Alliance, an organisation that includes the Bank of England, Morgan Stanley and Lloyds, among others, as its members.

Ms Jaman says that a senior professional recently told her how he now begins every work conversation with “How are you?” and actually listens – and who could find any good reason why this had not always been the case? She says that, no matter how trivial it may seem, the normalisation of that behaviour should not be underestimated. That is the basis of any broader mental health policy, she believes.

Opportunity for openness

If the origin of employees’ stress is overwork or the fear of no work, it is sometimes easier to dismiss. With the pandemic poised to cause a dire global recession, there is little that even the most well thought-through mental health corporate policy can do to alleviate employees’ anxiety. But it would be a shame if corporate leaders did not use the crisis to open up a wider and louder discussion over the ongoing importance of their mental wellbeing.

Employees’ mental health is a crucial component of the sustainability plans of any institution, banks included. It already has current implications. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that mental health issues in the workplace are responsible for a $1000bn loss in global productivity every year. In the UK, 12.8 million working days were lost in the 12 months to March 2019 because of work-related stress, depression or anxiety, according to the latest Labour Force Survey by the Health and Safety Executive, which the government agency released at the end of that year. 

The WHO says every $1 spent in treating common mental disorders yields $4 in improved health and productivity. It is an area worth investing in.

Programmes to support mental health at work have grown and become more visible over the years, not just because of compelling data. In many cases, this was thanks to the personal experience and the support of highly visible champions. Bankers in the UK will recall the openness of Lloyds Banking Group's CEO António Horta-Osório about his own troubles with mental health a few years ago.

In November 2011, the bank announced Mr Horta-Osório was taking time off after a stress-induced collapse, despite being less than a year on the job. Shares in the troubled lender lost 5% on the day the news broke; many doubted he would make it back. But the chief executive returned in January 2012, to continue the execution of a plan that culminated in the complete exit of the UK government from the bank’s capital five years later. 

Championing issue

Since his experience with severe sleep deprivation, Mr Horta-Osório has been a public and welcome supporter of mental health. His case is inspiring and has helped the cause. But, at any level of seniority, from the CEO to the branch cashier, mental health largely remains a stigmatised subject – perhaps even more so in some sectors, such as certain corners of banking where gruelling schedules and high pressure – although improving – are still considered ‘part of the job’. Admitting you cannot manage the workload or absorb the stress is perceived all too often as an admission you are not up to the job, rather than a revelation that the job itself needs revising. 

With employers now reporting that younger recruits are placing a higher value on work-life balance and purpose than preceding generations, greater efforts by banks to normalise conversations about mental health would be welcome – particularly if these come from those at the top.

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