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Lockdown takes mental health toll on financial services workers

The COVID-19 lockdown has taken a toll on financial services workers' mental health. Many are working longer hours while struggling with anxiety about returning to work, job security fears and stress, said mental health professionals and advocates.

This article was written by Rachel Wolcott and Lindsey Rogerson of Thomson Reuters Regulatory Intelligence

The UK’s Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) told firms at the outset of the pandemic that they had a responsibility to ensure the health of their staff. A spokesman confirmed in an email on May 21 that this included mental health. The regulator previously said it would hold senior managers responsible for employees’ poor mental wellbeing. It gave its opinion on why employee psychological safety was vital to maintaining a healthy culture at financial businesses in March 2019, after holding a Culture Sprint on the issue.

The FCA has worked with private group Nuffield Health to provide webinars for its own staff on mindfulness and better sleep during the pandemic, according to a tweet from its official Twitter account on May 19.

Blurred boundaries

The World Economic Forum said the pandemic, which has seen one-third of the world’s population experience some form of lockdown in 2020, was the “biggest psychological experiment in history,” Dr Stephen Pereira, a London-based psychiatrist who collaborated with the FCA on its psychological safety webinar, told Thomson Reuters Regulatory Intelligence (TRRI) that working from home during the pandemic is more stressful for some finance workers than working in the office.

“City workers, compared to non-City workers in my patient group, are working much longer hours. Many employers have shifted complex platforms to people’s homes. People are working longer hours because they don’t commute. Rather than making use of that additional time, now they are in front of their screens throughout the day, and those [work/home] boundaries are getting blurred,” Pereira said.

That observation is supported by data from Peakon, a people analytics and employee engagement company based in London, which counts BNY Mellon, Quilter, Monzo, and Revolut as clients. It ran a set of COVID-19 questions at the beginning of March across all industry sectors. One-in-five employees was critical of their employers’ approach to productivity.

“Eighty percent mentioned family issues getting in the way of being productive and said their company [was] out-of-touch with the heightened level of stress because of COVID and the uncertainty around their jobs. They’re feeling they’re not trusted to be productive working from home even though they’ve been forced into this situation. It’s then been exacerbated by employers installing monitoring solutions, which explicitly says, ‘we don’t trust you’,” said Phil Chambers, Peakon chief executive.

Peakon found that within the UK-specific wellbeing comments, the most prevalent terms and keywords, in order of frequency, included: mental health, life balance, job security, work from home, anxiety, family health, and managing workload.

Returner anxiety

“Returner anxiety” is a COVID-19 neologism describing the fear of being exposed to the virus in the workplace or while travelling there. Assuaging returner anxiety is a big concern for banks, Paul Barrett, head of wellbeing at the Bank Workers Charity, said recently during an Association for Financial Markets in Europe (AFME) webinar on how the lockdown has affected finance professionals’ mental health.

“In the immediate term it is almost inevitable businesses [will] have to focus on how they can persuade returning staff that the workplace environment is a safe place. That is a massive priority. Our charity has been approached by one of the big banks to do a webinar on returner anxiety,” Barrett said.

Barrett said opinion polls repeatedly showed that 65-75% of workers do not feel their workplace is a safe place to return to. Banks should consider using employees who were designated keyworkers and have therefore remained in offices throughout the pandemic as part of their strategy of persuasion.

Pereira said firms should not force employees back to the office before they were ready. “A [senior manager] who insists his team comes in because…he’s rigid in his views and behaviours about how things can be…hasn’t entertained the possibility of adaptability,” he said.

Preventative measures needed 

Firms tend to approach mental health and wellbeing with an emphasis on exercise and treatment rather than prevention, which can leave employees without the tools to navigate and manage emotions. It means some employees are unable to manage their COVID-19 fears proportionally, Pereira said.

“People do not necessarily have these tools and techniques, [which] means they are left with their innermost fears and anxieties. Some people who cannot regulate their emotions may have a disproportionate emotional reaction [to COVID-19 risk] which might result in them staying away. Some people might be over-cautious, some might be in the middle, some might be blasé. People who have some ability for constructive reflection are able to interpret a situation accurately,” he explained.

It is not too late to introduce digital preventative programmes and teach people psychological tools and techniques. At the very early stages when people start having sleep difficulty, stress, anxiety, anger management issues or relationship problems, that is the time they need tools and strategies, Pereira added.

Lloyds Banking Group introduced such a platform in October 2019. Helix Resilience offers psychological evidence-based cognitive therapy, webinars, podcasts and various pathways for people to assess if they are lacking psychological and social resilience. Some 83% of employees who registered on the platform are active users. Uptake increased significantly when employees started home working.

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