Employee mental health on bank agenda

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By:
Helen Avery
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From financial support and flexible working to Zoom ‘happy hours’, choirs, online yoga and mindfulness classes, banks around the world are seeking to address employee mental health during the Covid-19 crisis

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‘Working from home pics’, part of Citi's campaign on LinkedIn to help people feel connected to their colleagues and managers


“The financial industry as a whole has made a concerted effort to address mental health in recent years, but it’s fair to say that this period of stress due to the coronavirus has reinvigorated that conversation,” says Jenny Grey, head of EMEA human resources at Citi.

Citi was one of the first banks to announce it was addressing employee financial stress in addition to the other challenges the Covid-19 virus is creating. The bank has announced that it is giving its employees that earn less than $60,000 (or the regional equivalent) $1,000 each to help them cope.

Similar schemes have been seen across the sector. Many banks have made commitments to keep staff employed, provide paid leave for those who cannot work fully from home and offer extra financial support.

Bank of America has said it will not be making any layoffs or job reductions this year as a result of the pandemic. It has offered $100 a day in childcare payments for those that need it, is paying for transportation for employees that would otherwise need to use mass transit and eligible employees at financial centres are receiving a supplemental payment of $200 per pay period.

At Citi, employees that are required to be carers – and therefore cannot continue working at full capacity – have also been assured that they will receive support and continue to be paid. This is a measure that many others have taken. Credit Suisse gave employees working from home the option of paid leave, if they need to care of family members, just hours after the Swiss government said it would be closing schools to help prevent the spread of the virus.

New territory

The financial industry is now in new territory, dealing with employee mental health challenges around isolation, new working environments and a global pandemic.

Early surveys suggest that large numbers of people are experiencing elevated stress. In a poll of more than 1,000 Americans on March 19 by the American Psychiatric Association, 36% said that coronavirus was having a “serious impact” on their mental health. Longer-term effects are also expected. For example, in one study of Hong Kong’s 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak, 16% of residents still showed signs of post-traumatic stress disorder six months after the outbreak ended.

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Jenny Grey, Citi

The financial industry has made significant efforts in recent years to change its reputation for offering a stressful work environment. Banks have boosted mental health awareness programmes, training and services. Now the Covid-19 crisis is showing how effective those commitments can be.

“It’s not just about improving access to mental health services when issues arise,” says Grey. We’re seeing the importance of efforts aimed at building personal resilience.”

What does personal resilience look like and how can banks respond? Fortunately, there are numerous examples.

The first is the provision of information and resources for employees to help them stay safe and tackle the new working environment. Banks are encouraging employees to share personal stories and tips on everything from remote working to childcare and community service suggestions. In addition, banks are providing information on the latest government guidelines, as wells as general information on wellbeing and how to access bank resources such as counselling.


We’re seeing the importance of efforts aimed at building personal resilience 
 - Jenny Grey, Citi

In the UK, Lloyds Banking Group has a long-term partnership with Mental Health UK and offers its colleagues a ‘Your Resilience’ tool aimed at improving wellbeing.

“We know that one in four people are affected by mental health issues in the UK every year, so at any one time a significant number of our colleagues and customers may be struggling with their mental health,” says Fiona Cannon, managing director, group sustainable business at Lloyds Banking Group. More than 8,000 of its employees have registered for Your Resilience and can access new Covid-19 related content in the form of articles, animations, podcasts and webinars.

Direct support is also being offered. Lloyds has 800 internal mental health advocates currently offering weekly support sessions. Employees also have access to trained specialists. This is something many banks are now offering as part of their overall health coverage.

At Bank of America, free access to therapists and counselling using Teladoc has been rolled out for employees in the US until the end of May. It adds to the bank’s free provision of 24/7 telephonic and six face-to-face counselling sessions a year per issue to its employees. Anne Oxrider who heads the bank’s emotional wellness programmes says she has seen an uptick in the take-up of these services over the past few weeks.

Staying healthy at home

Emphasizing self-care, banks are also offering tips on how to stay healthy – particularly in a home environment. In mid-February DBS in Singapore distributed a care pack to employees comprising a thermometer, surgical masks, hand sanitizer and vitamin C. It offers webinars on health and wellbeing, such as home exercises to keep fit and stave off anxiety, as well as tips to boost the immune system.

Standard Chartered also offers resources on health and a weekly 30-minute wellness seminar focusing on anything from getting a better night’s sleep to activities for children. Employees at Standard Chartered have also initiated a #workoutfromhome challenge, where people share workout routines, ideas and photos.

At nearly every bank Euromoney has spoken to, yoga, mindfulness sessions, breathing breaks and meditation are being offered via free apps or Zoom meetings. At RBS one team has come together to pay a local Pilates teacher to offer weekly Zoom lessons.

Manager-specific resources are also seen as key. “One of the single biggest things we can do is to support the managers in managing through these issues and having the right conversations with their staff – creating resilient leaders,” says Citi’s Grey.

Bank of America also has targeted communications for managers offering resources, support and guidance to help lead teams through challenging times. Lloyds runs an Optimal Leadership Resilience programme focusing on building and maintaining psychological, social and physical resilience for its 2,000 senior leaders.

Several of those leaders have become a source of comfort during unsettling times. Ben Idle is a managing director in the investment banking and corporate banking operations division at Deutsche Bank. He is the executive sponsor of mental health first aid at the bank and is in touch more than 10,000 employees by email several times a week, sharing his own stories of how to handle stress on topics ranging from caring for elders to self-care.

“What I have learned is that sharing what we are going through can help us realize we’re all going through the same thing – maybe just with different flavours. It’s important for colleagues to see that senior management are listening, understanding and helping them.”

Sense of purpose

At Citi, Itay Tuchman, global head of FX, has also been helping to support his team of almost 800. Colleagues highlight him as having helped them reduce stress and stay motivated during the crisis so far. “We’re focusing on the financial situation on our screens, but first and foremost this is a humanitarian crisis,” he says. “It’s scary and it’s heartbreaking and it’s stressful, and then on top of that we have difficult markets and an entirely new working style. Communication matters more than ever here.

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Itay Tuchman, Citi

Tuchman has been reminding his employees about maintaining their health, weaving in uplifting proverbs and encouraging his team to submit their own. Tuchman says he is also trying to use different media to communicate.

“Emails are great, but I will also do a podcast as they can seem more personal. I will share my own personal experiences with home-schooling. We do video meetings, but I’ll also just call people individually if I don’t hear from them to see how they are and let them know we are thinking about them – that they matter. There’s no playbook for this. We’re all just adapting on the fly.”

Both he and Deutsche’s Idle point out the importance of reminding employees that what they do matters so that they have a sense of purpose. “I share stories of how they are helping companies continue in their missions and in turn are providing financial security to people in a time of great uncertainty,” says Tuchman.

Idle says that this crisis is a chance for banks to show how the sector can have a beneficial impact. “Hopefully that will give our employees and the industry the opportunity to feel positive about the role they play in larger society.”


We’re focusing on the financial situation on our screens, but first and foremost this is a humanitarian crisis 
 - Itay Tuchman, Citi

In order to support employees’ commitment to organizations responding to the coronavirus, Bank of America has lowered its matching gift minimum from $25 to $1 to increase the impact of every employee donation. The bank matches employee donations, dollar for dollar, up to $5,000 per calendar year.

Banks are also connecting their employees to volunteering opportunities. Lloyds, for example, is offering volunteering opportunities to its staff including National Health Service coronavirus volunteering, micro-volunteering (virtually from a laptop or in small time increments), sharing digital skills and remote charity and small business mentoring.

At BNP Paribas employees in the US are being put in touch with senior citizens through a letter writing programme to help older people feel less isolated. Employees can also be trained to assist remotely in hospital call centres and to offer virtual support for financial literacy for children and young adults as part of the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association’s InvestWrite programme.

Maintaining connections

Finally, banks are working hard to maintain the connections that their teams have. “I prefer to say we are practicing ‘physical distancing’ rather than ‘social distancing’ because what we want right now is to be more socially cohesive so we can get through this together,” says Tuchman.

Many banks report that teams are still meeting virtually for ‘happy hours’ on Fridays in order to have a more light-hearted shared time together. Virtual coffee meetings are also taking place and Credit Suisse is running matchmaking coffee hours, matching colleagues who have yet to connect in virtual coffee meetings to offer a means of networking while working from home.

Citi ran a campaign on LinkedIn, whereby seniors and employees across the region, posted ‘working from home pics’ in an effort to help people feel connected to their colleagues and managers, and also to thank its tech team.

In addition to yoga and meditation classes, through its partnership with Mental Health UK, Lloyds has started a series of virtual choir workshops for up to 500 colleagues each week to bring employees together to do something upbeat. The sessions involve vocal warm-ups, breathing techniques and “have everyone singing along to a feel-good song”. Employees are encouraged to include their family, children and housemates.

Bank employees say that the personal focus and open communication around stress may be a turning point for the industry. “Investment banking does attract a certain type of person that may not be in touch with self-care and also a Type A character open to stress. I would love to think that the work we are all doing – really driven by mental health charities around the world – will help those working in our sector be happier and more resilient going forward,” says Idle.


How can this period not change how we interact with each other? 
 - Anne Oxrider, Bank of America 

Mental health awareness has indeed risen in recent years after a World Health Organization study predicted that by 2030 depression will be the world’s most widespread disease – greater than the burden of diabetes, heart disease or cancer.

“What this crisis has done is permitted a greater level of discussion around mental health that in normal circumstances we wouldn’t have allowed for,” adds Citi’s Grey. “While we have broken many taboos around mental health in the workplace, now we are going through this shared experience of stress it has made people more mindful to the different stresses that people might be under. It’s made them more conscious of asking how their families are, how their financial situations are – more aware that there are various factors that contribute to mental health.”

It’s a point echoed by Bank of America’s Oxrider. “How can this periodnot change how we interact with each other? A lot of the tips around communication, such as connecting more with colleagues on personal challenges like caring for children or elders, or just checking in to see how each other are before getting straight to work topics – I expect these will continue beyond this crisis.”

Idle also hopes the current working environment will lead to a greater acceptance of flexible working that can also help reduce stress. Carers and parents are natural beneficiaries of more flexible working environments, but Idle also offers another example.

“Some of our colleagues in India report finding their days less stressful without a hectic commute,” he says. “I think we’re all realizing now how stressful our lives have become and that’s a good thing so long as there is support to handle it.”