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Ending the Stigma: #buysidementalhealth Initiative Sparks Important Conversations on Company Culture, Work-Life Balance and Returning to the Office

Sam Belden

Sam Belden

In the hustle and bustle of investing, trading and keeping the technology working, one issue on Wall Street gets scant attention: Mental Health. But a recent webinar on this topic, hosted by the Buy-Side Trading Community, featured an all-star panel representing firms including BlackRock, Invesco, MarketAxess and State Street. Participants shared their views on mental health in the workplace and responded to a recent survey of 116 senior buyside traders. While perspectives varied in this event hosted by K&K Global Consulting, the panelists agreed that while much progress has been made how mental health is addressed on the buy side, there is still a long road ahead.

Mental health: It touches every facet of our lives, but it has also long been a taboo subject, especially in the corporate world. The financial services industry, famous for its long hours, fast-paced environment and laser-focus on the bottom line, has often been especially resistant to address this issue in a nuanced way. Yet thanks to greater education, courageous activism and the challenges associated with the pandemic, the tide is turning ― and many industries have seen an unprecedented level of discussion on this topic.

This was evident at the recent #buysidementalhealth webinar, hosted by the Buy-Side Trading Community operated by K&K Global Consulting (K&KGC). Featuring an all-star panel representing firms including BlackRock, Invesco, MarketAxess and State Street, participants shared their views on mental health in the workplace and responded to a survey of 116 senior traders on the buy side. While perspectives varied, the panelists agreed that while there has been much progress in terms of how mental health is addressed on the buy side, there is still a long road ahead.

“#Buysidementalhealth is a sensitive, timely and topical humanistic campaign launched by the Buy-Side Trading Community as a direct response from senior, heads and global heads of trading worldwide, but it is pertinent to state that this topic touches on all segments of the capital markets,” said Anita Karppi, Co-Founder of the Buy-Side Trading Community. “Creating awareness and speaking out about these taboo issues needs to be done to help to eliminate the stigma associated with mental health.

“The statistics are disturbing and buy-side firms need to create key actions to carefully address all issues faced in the workplace, especially with the return back to the office this year,” Karppi continued. “The honesty of the buy-side firms backing the campaign needs to be acknowledged and commended. I am proud to initiate this cause, as I have seen from our past initiatives that we can help to create change.”

One perhaps obvious takeaway from the survey was that buy-side traders are just as susceptible to struggles with mental health as anyone else. A full 62% of respondents said they had experienced problems with their mental health, many citing stress and a lack of work-life balance. Meanwhile, more than one-third of respondents said their mental health has suffered significantly over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite the ubiquity of these difficulties, the stigma around talking about mental health remains. While most respondents said they would be open to discussing mental health struggles with someone, over 20% stated they did not feel there was anyone they would speak to.

“Often we don’t know when a colleague or friend is suffering,” said Alex Jenkins, Head Trader at Polar Capital. “They smile on the outside; they tell us they are fine. It’s our joint responsibility to remove all stigma attached to mental health. We need to talk, we need to listen and, above all, we need to be kind to each other.”

In many ways, the buy side has stepped up to the plate. While around 24% of respondents said their firm has not issued any guidance on mental health, the rest did report some kind of action, whether in the form of internal awareness campaigns, well-being procedures, counseling assistance or management training. More than one-third said they would be willing to discuss their mental health with a manager or colleague, indicating a growing sense of openness.

Beyond fostering a culture that emphasizes mental health, the panelists discussed several other ways to increase the well-being of buy-side employees.

“For me, it’s important that I allocate time to spending quality time with the family, exercising regularly, respecting work-life boundaries and switching off,” said Paul Battams, Head of EMEA Equity Trading at BlackRock. “Even small things like no meetings on a Friday afternoon, which BlackRock has implemented globally, are a great way for people to transition into weekend mode.”

Panelists agreed that the transition from remote work environments, necessitated by the pandemic, to the physical office will serve as an important stress test for organizational flexibility and prioritization of mental health. While more than half of survey respondents are still working exclusively from home, the vast majority will return to the office at some point, and this has drawn a mixed response.

“The extra time in the day from working from home has allowed me to return to some old hobbies, some of which I have not done for years,” said Clark Simpson, Head of Trading at Mondrian Investment Partners. “Also, family has always been my biggest motivator, so having more time with them has been a joy. That said, over the past year I have also missed colleagues. I am someone who needs to spend time around people for my own well-being and identity. There have been times over the past year when I have felt isolated in my office at home talking to the dog.”

Survey respondents cited additional disadvantages of working from home, such as the inability to separate work from life and longer hours due to a lack of commuting. The vast majority said they would prefer to work two or three days from home and the rest in the office.

Allowing more control over schedules and work environments is one way to boost mental health on the buy side. As for other tactics, over half of respondents cited exercise, while other responses included spending time with family, hobbies and reading. Less than 3% cited counseling or therapy, which may suggest that while attitudes are changing, there remains significant resistance around seeking professional help when needed, perhaps due to fear of looking weak or vulnerable.

But regardless of what the future of work on the buy side looks like, it will be better for having important discussions on every facet of employee well-being. Mental health has always been a key issue in any workplace, and by approaching in the right fashion, the industry can do its best to ensure happiness and productivity at every level of the organization.

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