The business case for employee mental health care

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

But some changes in workplace culture won’t go away. Decades of change in the way employers and employees interact has accelerated. Employees who once kept their personal struggles with stress, depression, and anxiety hidden now feel more comfortable sharing and asking for help.

Rather than waning due to the pandemic, demand for workplace support is still on the rise, and many employers are starting to look at such offerings as a way to entice and retain workers. This means that white-collar managers have to deal with mental health and work-life balance issues, whether they want to or not.

Examples are everywhere, but the change is particularly marked in the financial services sector. This line of work has historically demanded punitive hours and many companies have been pressured to bring employees back into the office.

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

This is not just a matter of generosity or paternalism. The World Health Organization estimates that 12 billion working days worth $1 trillion of productivity are lost every year due to depression and anxiety. And in the US, as of 2021, nearly one-quarter of all adults suffered from a mental illness last year. Young people aged 18 to 25 were twice as likely to report symptoms as those over 50: 36 percent versus 14 percent.

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 reach out when they need help, says Jacqueline Arthur, chief human resources officer at Goldman. Early intervention is really important.

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

Not everyone sees this in a positive light. The Economist recently warned in a leader that the awareness campaign was leading Britons to conflate normal reactions to life’s difficulties with mental-health disorders. There is also considerable private grumbling among senior bankers and investors. Many of today’s leaders survived rigorous apprenticeship programs involving 100-hour weeks, merciless teasing, and blowing staplers.

Although neither wants to return to overt misogyny and bullying, they admit that today’s 20-somethings find it somewhat restrained. When a group of Goldman Sachs analysts prepared a PowerPoint complaining about overwork at the peak of the investment banking boom of 2021, opinion on Wall Street was decidedly divided over whether they were raising a legitimate complaint. Or snowflakes, who should find a different career.

If such complaints sound familiar, they are familiar. thirty years ago, books like listening to prozac Warnings were raised that the then-new antidepressants would deconstruct human personality and lead to cosmetic pharmacology that would pump drugs into people who were not actually unhealthy. In fact, the spread of antidepressant-use and improved coverage of mental health care are credited with a significant decline in US suicide rates in the 1990s, although deaths have gradually increased since then.

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

Use remains high, alongside Covid-era innovations like online talk therapy, mindfulness and meditation apps, as well as wellness days that allow time to recharge. In the past people were using services in times of crisis. People are becoming a little more aware now, says Sharyn Jones, interim co-head of talent at BNY Mellon.

Yet many older people remain uncomfortable discussing mental health issues, let alone asking for help. This puts the onus on companies to create an environment where such conversations are welcome. The rapid spread 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 cultural change. Citigroup and BNY Mellon each took action this month, suspending office requirements for the last two weeks of December and urging employees to use the period to recharge. BNY Mellon Chief Executive Robin Vince said in a recent interview that there’s a certain humanity attached to letting people make sure they’re focused on their lives, especially at critical times of the year.

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

brooke.masters@ft.com

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