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Stress and the City: time for a grown-up conversation about work-related mental health issues

The problems of stress and burnout have featured in the press a lot lately (see the end of this piece for some articles that have recently appeared in the FT). A series of suicides in the first quarter of 2014, mostly involving banking sector employees, has focussed attention on the mental health impacts of long-hours culture and high pressure working environments. The death of a young Bank of America intern in London last summer – which the coroner said could have been triggered by exhaustion from overwork – has prompted some soul-searching at a number of investment banks.

Changing the long-hours culture

Merrill Lynch launched a review of working conditions for junior staff in the wake of the tragedy. Earlier this year, Credit Suisse sent a memo asking their junior staff working in the Americas to stay out of the office between 6pm on Fridays and 10am on Sundays, unless working on a live deal. Goldman Sachs is also in the process of implementing a number of recommendations made by a “junior banker task force” set up last year, including hiring more entry level staff and encouraging more predictable working hours.

These are important first steps in changing the long-hours culture that exists in the financial sector. However, addressing the causes as well as the symptoms will take courage and commitment from City employers. The trouble is that 80 hour weeks and a skewed work-life balance can be infectious. In highly competitive environments like law and banking – and with the economy in the state that it is presently in – junior staff are constantly having to up the ante to get noticed. And what client will hire a firm – be it legal, accountancy, management consulting or financial services – that does not share its own work ethic?

When I worked in the City, I saw little to convince me that employers regarded long-hours culture as a particular problem. How could having an army of junior staff ready to work though the night for a client (not now and again, but on a regular basis) be anything but advantageous?

But that was admittedly a long time ago. Much has changed since then. In the legal sector, clients are increasingly demanding alternative fee packages to get a job done, rather than the traditional “hourly rate” model which has never been a particularly good incentive for efficiency. Banks are working against a regulatory background that is now seeking to curb their ability to reward long hours with enormous bonuses. Increasing competition for talent from new sectors, such as high tech companies, is causing City firms to reflect further on how to make themselves a more attractive career prospect for smart new recruits. And, more broadly, corporate responsibility ideas and initiatives are causing a re-evaluation by many firms as to whether present working practices are consistent with equality and diversity objectives.

Getting down to the root causes

So are lawyers likely to follow the bankers' lead? Will they be issuing directions to junior staff about work/life balance and what constitutes a sensible working week? Will they be taking steps to understand what makes their junior staff tick, and what their hopes and fears might be? Will they be offering staff new opportunities – other than working themselves into the ground, that is – to get noticed? Will there be a greater emphasis on care and supervision, and greater efforts to root out and discourage “secret working”? Will remuneration decisions be based on a proper assessment of an employee's value to the firm and its clients, rather than largely on the basis of billable hours? Will care of junior employees be one of the criteria on which the performance of senior managers is assessed and rewarded?

If they are, they aren't talking about it much. A review of the CSR reports and web-site statements of the UK's top 10 law firms is revealing, as much for what is left out as for what is included. Yes, there are mentoring schemes and nods here and there to the need for staff to have a decent work/life balance. However, these discussions mostly take place against the background of goals on equality and diversity (frequently referred to as “maximising the talent pool”). The idea here is that better work/life balance is key to retaining staff with family responsibilities (which, let's face it, is still a burden that falls largely on women). This is a laudable aim, and a necessary one too. As I have said before, most top UK law firms have a lamentable record when it comes to retaining and promoting female talent.

But the wider problem – the long-hours culture and its mental health impacts on employees (and especially on junior employees) is barely discussed.

Time for a grown-up discussion

This doesn't mean that law firms are doing nothing. Law firms clearly face a dilemma in communicating on these issues. Clients are a key (if not the key) audience for these reports and statements. Law firms don't want to risk giving the impression that they have staff who might not give their all to meet a client's needs or, worse, might keel over from the stress and exhaustion of it all. So you will inevitably read much more in law firms' CSR reports about “putting the client first” than you will about care of employees' mental health.

On the other hand, the recent initiatives by banks discussed at the start of this piece, and the fact that they are willing to discuss them in public, surely creates an opportunity. Talking openly about what a firm is doing in response to the problem of overwork, long-hours culture, stress and mental health issues may not be taken as the sign of weakness that it used to be. Rather, a sign of strength, maturity, common sense and humanity.

Some law firms seem to be getting wise to this. Take a look at the most recent report by the law firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer. In it, you will find the to-be-expected statements about how their staff go “above and beyond” for clients and how they show “grace under pressure”. However, there is something important and new on page 17. Here, the firm acknowledges that mental health issues are “common” and, at the same time, that it's “rare to talk about these things”. “We're trying to change this” it says. The report then goes on to describe various initiatives at the firm which are designed to help their employees, including a “psychological well-being month”, a series of staff workshops run by a psychologist on psychological resilience and the launch of an on-line tool for employees on “staying resilient while coping with family needs”.

Freshfields is to be commended for being prepared not only to recognise and do something about the issue of work-related mental health problems but for having the courage and honesty to cover this in its CSR report as well. Stress and workplace-related mental health are emerging as significant CSR issues and, given recent tragic events, they deserve much more prominence in the CSR reports of the professional service providers – the law firms, accountants, banks and management consultants – than they have been given to date.

So now that we've overcome our reluctance to talk about this, let's hear more about how City firms are responding. What new policies are being developed? What initiatives are being undertaken? What key performance indicators will be used to track progress? And how do all these link to matters such as recruitment, performance evaluation, promotion and remuneration?

Over to you.

Interesting articles and press comment on this topic:

Bankers and lawyers are on an unhealthy treadmill, Financial Times , 15 January 2014.

Workaholic ex-bankers impose their long-hours culture on new colleagues, Financial Times , 22 March 2014.

Campaign to tackle the stigma of mental health issues, Financial Times , 31 March 2014.

Why must financiers meditate in secret?, Financial Times, 29 April 2014.

Mindfulness gives stressed-out bankers something to think about, Financial Times , 5 May 2014.

Depression still carries a stigma in the office, Financial Times , June 2014, p. 12.

High cost of mental health problems forces employers to act, Financial Times , 8 July 2014, Responsible Business Supplement. p. 6.

We need to talk about mental health, Financial Times, 2 October 2014, Executive Appointments Supplement, p. 1.

Staff Groups bring mental well-being into the open, Financial Times , 6 November 2014, Executive Appointments Supplement, p. 1.

See also

Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Responsible Business Report 2013

Business in the Community: Mental Health: We're Ready to Talk.




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written by Jennifer Zerk


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