Safeguarding the Mental Health of Employees in the Financial Services Sector

Recent research into the psychological welfare of the UK’s workforce – and of professionals working in the finance sector in particular – has profound ramifications for both workers and businesses. Findings demonstrate the increasing prevalence of mental health related problems among staff, and the costly effect that this has on business productivity. 

Mental health issues in the financial services sector are widespread:

  • According to the Government’s 2017 Thriving at Work review, which examines what employers can do to better support employees, around 300,000 individuals leave employment each year as a result of mental health issues. 
  • 15.4 million working days were lost in 2018 as a result of stress, depression and anxiety, according to a survey by Aon Employee Benefits (AEB).

The AEB findings show this to be a growing problem:

  • Financial-sector firms saw a 64% increase in mental health issues at work in 2018.
  • 74% of workers surveyed indicating that firms should be doing more to safeguard the mental health of employees.
  • Of those surveyed, 42% would access emotional wellbeing support if it was introduced.

Organisations taking steps to safeguard the mental health of their workforce can find that this financially benefits the company, as well as improving the professional lives of the individuals affected. Poor mental health among the workforce is currently costing employers between £33-42 billion per year, according to independent research by the professional services network Deloitte, published in Thriving at Work

Their investigation delineates the ways in which inadequately managed mental health issues typically impact the finances of an organisation. Costs of this nature are primarily accrued from absenteeism, presenteeism ‒ where unresolved mental health related issues detract from an employee’s performance ‒ and from having high levels of staff turnover. 

It is important that employers familiarise themselves with the ways in which mental health issues can arise and manifest at work, and explore steps that they can take to fortify the welfare of employees.

Money spent on improving mental health can be a worthwhile investment

“Our analysis indicates the potential impact poor mental health has on UK businesses and the wider economy. It should spur employers into recognising that championing mental health and supporting employees makes good business sense and that inaction comes at a demonstrable cost,” says David Sproul, Senior Partner and Chief Executive at Deloitte UK. According to the research by Deloitte, the average return for every pound spent on mental health in 2017 was £4.20, demonstrating the impact on the bottom line when a firm cares for the psychological wellbeing of employees.

Paul Farmer, the Chief Executive of the mental health charity MIND and co-author of Thriving at Work, is equally direct in linking companies’ projected success to their foresight in dedicating resources to managing mental health. Farmer says: “money spent on improving mental health has shown a consistently positive return on investment. At a time when there is a national focus on productivity, the inescapable conclusion is that it is in the interest of both employers and Government to prioritise and invest far more in improving mental health.”

Time to talk: ending stigma and silence around mental health issues at work

Complementing these studies indicating the rising prevalence of mental health related issues among financial services personnel, a number of recent studies have focussed on another facet of the problem. This is the existence of a pervasive stigma around discussing mental health, preventing frank and forthright discussion of the difficulties that an individual may be experiencing.

According to a Time to Change campaign poll published in 2019 by Personnel Today, just 13% of those surveyed felt able to open up to colleagues about their mental health. 

A 2018 poll commissioned by the Mental Health Foundation in Scotland highlights the concern of admitting psychological issues to work colleagues, and how this could affect career prospects. Of the 2,000 workers surveyed, 40% would not talk openly about mental health problems at work due to fears around job security. 

When implementing mental health policies, companies can take steps to ensure that these help to tackle this stigma, and end the collective silence around talking about mental health at work. A culture of open communication makes it easier for all employees affected by mental health issues to identify and access the resources and treatment options they may need.

Legislation relating to safeguarding mental health at work

When mental health issues remain unaddressed, thereby regularly causing the affected individual difficulties during their working day, disputes and claims can arise. This typically occurs when an employee perceives that their workplace has directly contributed to the quality of their mental health, or feels discriminated against on the basis of it. 

It is advisable for employers to familiarise themselves with a range of legislation in order to anticipate and prevent disputes relating to mental health. This includes:

The Equality Act 2010. Mental health, like impaired physical health, can be classified as a disability. A discrimination claim can therefore be brought against a company by an employee who does not feel that reasonable adjustments have been made by their employer to accommodate their mental health needs, e.g. introducing flexible working hours or the possibility to work remotely as needed. It is important to note that you can be on notice that a person has a disability by information supplied (e.g. through hearsay or fit notes). Not being told by the person that they have a disability explicitly, is not a defence against Employment Tribunal (ET) claims. 

Bullying and harassment claims may also result from the poor management of mental health in the workplace, so it is vital that policies implemented foster a culture of understanding, in which appropriate language is used to discuss mental health.

The Working Time Regulations Act 1998. The use of communication tools in a workplace can contribute to the sensation of being constantly connected to one’s working life. It is vital that clear policies are issued regarding when contact outside of work hours is acceptable, and what forms this can take. If boundaries in this regard are not delineated and respected, employees may find work-related communications out of hours contribute to their levels of anxiety, leading to them making successful claims.

Policies fit for purpose: promoting mental health awareness at work

A successful strategy to improve the company culture around mental health may involve a combination of internal policy implementations, and participation in external mental health first aid training programmes. These generally keep the company abreast of mental health management standards, while also training staff members to spot the symptoms of mental health issues in order to provide initial help and support. 

Policy and practical changes which can be implemented to promote mental health and awareness in a company include:

An Equality and Diversity policy. In view of the fact that mental health related issues can be a disability, it is important to ensure that they are treated as such by all staff. To avoid offensive remarks that could constitute bullying and harassment, it is also important to ensure that everyone adheres to a code of conduct when speaking about mental health. It could be useful to add this and guidelines on policies addressing bullying and harassment.

By creating an atmosphere in which a diverse array of individuals perceive that many contrasting needs are being met, a company will distinguish itself as an organisation where equality and diversity are embraced, improving the day-to-day experience of its current employees as well as its wider reputation and recruitment process.

Linking mental and physical health. One of the biggest challenges that those seeking to reform the management of mental health in the workplace must address is the fact that it can be viewed as a less legitimate area of concern than physical health. Contextualising it as being on a par with physical health is therefore one of the most important strategies a company can implement, when looking to advance the mental health protection of employees. 

Mental health first aid training can make a dynamic change to the visibility of mental health concerns within a company. The intention is that the training can equip certain staff with an in-depth understanding of mental health, and the various factors that can affect wellbeing. They can develop skills in how to recognise the warning signs, and the confidence to reassure a person in distress before advising them on the options for further support.

Promoting physical health. In step with an increasing company-wide awareness of the fact that mental and physical health can be synonymous, increasing staff access to facilities that promote physical wellbeing can have a positive knock-on effect on their mental health. Examples may include making healthy food options available, and offering perks like Wellness Checks and Employee Assistance Programmes (EAP) to make staff feel supported.

Better communications. A company’s internal communications can also be used to help raise the profile of mental health awareness within an organisation, as well as directing staff towards external resources that may be of help. Company communications can be used for signposting external resources such as the Samaritans, as well as for collecting feedback indicating employees’ perspectives on mental health care at work, which can be used to shape future initiatives and policies. 

Mental ill health is the leading causes of absence in the UK, according to the Time to Change campaign, which is designed to address the way mental health is approached in the workplace. Treating company mental health as an area of improvement ‒ and directing time and resources towards transforming it ‒ is often one of the best possible forms of protection against legal conflict and unnecessary losses.