In observance of Mental Health Awareness Month, this new feature story from Forefront Communications examines how firms are working to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health and actions that are being taken to support employees
The pandemic has had an undeniable impact on employees across the financial services industry. It has called attention to issues that once received little attention in this fast-paced space, and priorities have shifted accordingly. One of the most significant is mental health – specifically, how to break the stigma around talking about it and support employees who may be struggling.
Capital markets jobs are famous for their long hours and intensely competitive work environments. What’s less discussed is the hidden toll that these stressful conditions can have on employees’ mental and overall well-being. While small amounts of intermittent stress may not be cause for concern, too much can contribute to unhappiness, reduced functioning and isolation. What’s more, many workers suffer from chronic stress, leaving them in an endless cycle of anxiety.
In February 2022, the New York City affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI-NYC) announced the launch of its NAMI-NYC Wall Street Mental Health Collaborative, a year-long initiative in which participating firms pledge to work to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health challenges in their organization and the industry at large. With Deutsche Bank, CVC Advisors, Mizuho Securities USA, The Riverside Company, UBS and Värde Partners all signing on, it’s clear that the conversation around this once taboo subject is beginning to shift.
“The direct and indirect impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on mental health won’t be addressed by maintaining the status quo. Returning to the office and reengaging with our whole selves at work will only be possible by prioritizing mental well-being in the workplace, reducing the stigma around mental health topics and fostering better community engagement,” said Christiana Riley, Member of the Management Board and Americas CEO, Deutsche Bank, in a press release highlighting the initiative.
While a significant amount of progress has been made, there is still work to be done. As the industry looks to take meaningful action on mental health, sustained efforts will be critical. And while change begins from the top down, there are also steps employees can take to ensure they are both protecting and advocating for their mental well-being.
The Heart of the Matter
As explained in a recent Institutional Investor article, a significant contributing factor to the intense work environment that has come to define Wall Street is the fact that, simply put, money never sleeps. “The investment industry has long been a high-stress, high-stakes culture, and this strenuous environment can cause or magnify psychological difficulties. The simple fact that markets are always open somewhere makes it difficult for investment professionals to unplug.”
The pandemic has only intensified these conditions, with remote work environments and uncertain market conditions making it even harder to take a step back from the stress, says Yael Sivi, LCSW, licensed psychotherapist, executive coach and managing partner of Collaborative Coaching.
“Because so much of the past two years have collapsed the boundary between work and home, it has been harder to strike a balance between the two and to draw healthy boundaries for ourselves. We used to work from home – now we live at work,” said Sivi, who is a regular faculty member at SIFMA’s annual Securities Industry Institute.
Data from the Buy-Side Trading Community’s (BTC) 2021 #Buysidementalhealth benchmarking report confirms this, with over 60% of 116 senior heads and global heads of trading from asset managers and hedge funds reporting that they had experienced problems with their mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the report, many cited stress, pressure and lack of work/life balance as the primary causes.
“COVID-19 served as a catalyst, uncovering the underlying mental health struggles faced by many within the trading community and across the capital markets. I believe this data verifies the need for a call to action to implement effective programs and ways of working that will serve to protect the mental well-being of employees,” said Anita Karppi, Founder of the Buy-side Trading Community (BTC).
Breaking the Stigma
Through continued discussion and education, the stigma on Wall Street around seeking treatment for mental health struggles is slowly receding — especially as the effects of stress and burnout are better understood.
“For many years, I do think Wall Street viewed mental health as a stigma, as opposed to considering it like any other health issue that can be treated by professionals. Having any kind of mental health discussion 15 years ago was unlikely, but the topic is more in the open now,” said Brian Williamson, Head of Sales at Luminex Trading, an industry-leading block-trading ATS. “Unfortunately, it took a pandemic for many in the industry to start coming around on this issue. Breaking the mental health stigma starts at the top of every organization across all industries. Employees should not be punished or frowned upon for taking time to take care of self – just the opposite needs to occur.”
To some, removing the stigma around mental health means changing how they conceptualize the term.
“I think like a lot of people of my generation, I grew up thinking that mental health treatment was only for people who were depressed or anxious or had some sort of problem that needed fixing. But then someone suggested to me that it could also be a means to remain mentally and emotionally healthy, like when you go to the gym or see a doctor for your annual physical in an effort to maintain your physical health,” said Mark Dowd, Managing Partner at Forefront Communications. “That was an aha moment for me and was what ultimately led to me getting comfortable with the idea of seeing a therapist, which has been hugely helpful both personally and professionally.”
Amid this shift in priorities, firms across the Street including Bank of America, J.P. Morgan and others are taking concrete steps toward the creation of mental health programs, adding mental health wellness benefits and providing informational resources.
Activities including therapy, meditation and being transparent about individual struggles are all proactive measures that can be taken to ensure that emotional well-being receives the same level of attention as physical well-being in the workplace. At Luminex, this is a top priority.
“The Luminex healthcare plans account for the use of professionals like therapists, and there is focus on work/life balance that comes from the top down,” said Williamson. “You are not meant to feel shame for taking a few hours off to take care of your emotional or physical health. Employees are empowered to take care of family and self above all other things.”
As employees continue to navigate remote and hybrid work environments, organizational leaders are increasingly making it a priority to regularly check in on their employees and assess how they are doing on both a personal and professional level.
“One of the key success factors of organizations is to listen to their staff and engage more with them in terms of their needs and requirements. Many firms are engaging with their teams and understanding how to support them effectively on a case-by-case basis,” emphasized Karppi.
While it is important that change happens at the institutional level, employees must also take it upon themselves to prioritize their mental health.
“At the heart of burnout is our failure to respect our own limits, and to recognize what we need to be happy and healthy. While managers, leaders and organizations contribute to burnout with their unrealistic expectations, it’s also tempting to vilify them. In reality, we all play a part in our own well-being and self-care,” said Sivi.
As Sivi went on to explain, safeguarding our individual well-being is a holistic endeavor. We are not just “productivity machines,” and setting boundaries, both at work and with ourselves – a task that, for many, is easier said than done – is one of many proactive steps employees can take to advocate for their needs.
“Many of us say we want more balance, but we have a competing, underlying commitment to project a productive, valuable image. Many of us don’t know who we would be if we said ‘no more,’ if we risked disappointing people, or if we didn’t take care of every situation. In this case, you may have a bit of an internal ‘hustle’ going on, where you need to be the hero or the caretaker. Watch for this habit and be honest with yourself: Would you rather maintain your image or be healthy?” added Sivi.
As firms look toward a post-COVID-19 future, continuing these conversations on mental health will be crucial to both protecting the well-being of their employees and retaining top talent. As the “Great Resignation” has exemplified, employees are no longer willing to settle when it comes to their day-to-day work experience, and that includes their mental health.
“Our creativity, our ability to collaborate with others and our ability to think critically are the foundation for the entire knowledge industry, and we don’t see this changing anytime soon,” added Yosh Beier, executive coach and Sivi’s partner at Collaborative Coaching. “Paying attention to employees’ emotional well-being may actually be a differentiator between firms who can attract and retain staff, and those who cannot. This will rely on organizational policies that support wellness and will require healthy, facilitative leaders and managers.”
It is equally important that firms recognize that this increased attention toward mental health must be more than a flash in the pan. Though we are optimistically moving toward a “new normal,” Karppi stresses that the impact of the last two years is only now beginning to take effect.
“It would be very easy for firms to go back to the ‘pre-pandemic’ working way of life. It’s important to take the key learnings from the pandemic, listen to your staff and craft your strategy and company culture accordantly,” added Karppi. “The one key message for firms here is that this is not over; the ripple effects from the pandemic are going to continue for a long time. Firms need to ensure that they continue to recognize this and adjust accordingly in order to meet the needs of their workforce.”