Virtual therapy, yoga, pet parties: Banks' answers to worker stress

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As the coronavirus pandemic drags on, bank employees are increasingly seeking out mental health and wellness programs to deal with the effects of stress, burnout and prolonged isolation.

In response, Citigroup, Bank of America, Fifth Third Bancorp and other banking companies are pushing telemedicine options, rolling out yoga and guided meditation courses, and augmenting or adapting existing wellness programs to meet the need. As essential workers, bankers have to contend not only with long hours processing emergency relief and the threat of the virus itself, but also a range of mental health issues.

“The pandemic has dramatically changed the way we’re working,” said Lori Zimmerman, the corporate medical director at Citigroup. “Most of our employees are outside the office, their days are longer, they’re separated from their loved ones. … This is taking a huge emotional toll on all of us.”

The mental health challenges associated with the pandemic are wide-ranging. People are adjusting, en masse, to working from home full time. Work-life balance has gotten harder for parents, who now must home-school their children while also working day jobs. The isolation needed to slow the spread of coronavirus has exacerbated already existing anxiety, depression and addiction issues.

mental health survey

A recent survey of banking and financial services companies by the human resources consulting firm Mercer supports the anecdotal reports. Nearly 40% of survey respondents said they had employees who have experienced mental health issues because of isolation or financial anxiety. A majority of financial services companies said they were communicating more about existing mental health programs, while 33% have introduced new mental health programs and 53% have established other optional wellness programs since the pandemic began.

“People are definitely stressed and facing mental health issues,” said Nigel Carter, Mercer’s global financial services industry leader. Employee assistance programs are “a key weapon in the arsenal,” and use of those programs has “gone up dramatically” since the coronavirus pandemic began, he said.

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“The virtual health care asks have gone way, way up,” said Jennifer Young, chief human resources officer at TD Bank. She said that interest lately has tended more toward mental and behavioral health than physical wellness or routine health care questions.

Anne Oxrider, a benefits executive at Bank of America, said the company recently added a behavioral health component to its existing virtual health program.

“Virtual health has become an important area to focus on,” she said. “We were able to very quickly turn on the service for employees to have virtual access to see a psychologist or a psychiatrist.”

She also said the bank has seen a “substantial” adoption of its free 24-hour confidential counseling line.

Huntington Bancshares in Columbus, Ohio, made a decision early on to double the free counseling sessions included in its benefits package, said Matt Hall, director of culture of the $114 billion-asset bank.

“That way people wouldn’t feel like they would have to pay for something they really needed,” he said.

In addition to the increased access, Citi’s Zimmerman said the remote work environment may also make it easier for many to seek out mental health services. In an office environment, people might be reluctant to leave their workspace for an hour in the middle of the day. At home, it’s easier to carve out the time for a therapy appointment and they don’t have to explain to anybody where they’re going.

Supporting employees’ mental health needs can also be less obvious than promoting virtual access to therapists. Sometimes it might look like offering a hand with mundane chores to help reduce somebody’s mental workload.

For example, the $185 billion-asset Fifth Third Bancorp in Cincinnati has offered a maternity concierge program since 2017 to help new and expectant mothers juggle their new responsibilities.

Lately, it has been handling routine grocery shopping trips and other assorted errands parents once would have done on their way home from the office, said Bob Shaffer, chief human resources officer.

“There’s a lot of pent-up frustration in not being able to leave the house or go anywhere, changing your buying behaviors — you can’t go see things — [and] being concerned if you do go to the grocery store or post office,” he said.

Human resources executives say they’ve seen a lot of interest in resources — articles, webinars or online support groups — aimed at helping employees adjust to the current norm.

The $172.8 billion-asset HSBC USA has been gathering that type of information together into a centralized online portal that employees can access at their own leisure, said Chief Human Resources Officer Maureen Gillan-Myer. While the focus at the beginning of the pandemic was on physical safety and transitioning to a mostly remote working environment, that has shifted to the side effects of long-term stress.

“Reality started to set in that this isn’t going away in a couple weeks, and we knew it was going to take an emotional toll on our people,” Gillan-Myer said.

To combat isolation, banks have also gotten creative about fostering a sense of community from afar. Yoga, guided meditation and Zoom “happy hours” are common.

Employees of the $1 billion-asset Beneficial State Bank in Oakland, Calif., have also hosted virtual art shows and “frankly adorable” pet parties, interim CEO Randell Leach said.

“We use the internet and all those resources to celebrate birthdays and babies more than we did before,” he said.

Executives also highlighted the importance of regular communication. It’s not enough to simply offer expanded telehealth access or paid time off — people should be encouraged to actually use those things.

“You have to take care of yourself so you can be there to serve others. There’s always another hour you can work, there’s always another [Paycheck Protection Program] loan you can do,” Leach said. “At the end of whatever the surge is, you still need to be standing, so you need to have some reserves.”

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Mental health Coronavirus Employee benefits Workplace management GSIBs Regional banks Community banks Citigroup Bank of America Fifth Third Bancorp