Yoga classes, enforced holidays and in-house counselling – are banks softening their approach? As another City boss takes time out for exhaustion, Joshi Herrmann finds a more caring Square Mile.

Mention stress to a City banker a few years ago and “stress testing” would have come to mind – the unpopular method of balance-sheet testing used by financial regulators to measure the capital adequacy of banks in unfavourable economic scenarios. Ask them now, and they would be more likely to say it’s the thing that has taken two of the City’s most gifted executives out of their jobs in the space of two years.

When it emerged on Tuesday night that top Barclay’s executive and former FSA boss Sir Hector Sants was taking three months off as a result of “exhaustion and stress” the financial world’s reaction – some surprise and plenty of sympathy – showed how things have changed. Two years ago, the announcement that Lloyd’s chief executive António Horta-Osório was taking a similar leave deeply shocked the City, with some observers unsure whether the stated reason – “fatigue” – masked something more prosaic. The BBC’s business editor Robert Peston was criticised after reporting Horta-Osório’s “leave of absence” with a blog post entitled “Lloyds’ boss flunks stress test” and was forced to update his post later with the message: “I would never trivialise stress – and I do not believe the punning headline on this post does that.” Either way, Peston probably wouldn’t repeat the gag today.

In fact, some of the City’s biggest beasts, once the preserve of macho, all-hours working culture, are now taking stress so seriously you’d be forgiven for thinking they’ve gone soft.

A senior banker told the Standard this week that stress is now firmly on the City’s agenda. He said his bank even forces some workers to stay out of the office between Friday night and Sunday morning – what the rest of us call a weekend – and encourages holidays so tired minds can be rested from thoughts of initial public offerings and takeovers. “We want someone who will last for 20 years, not burn out after two or three,” he said, adding the caveat that if a client is on the phone, his workers have to answer “or they’ll go to the bank down the road”.

As the post-recession City takes shape, the question of how to run world-beating financial companies with more regulatory pressure and fewer staff is being posed at the highest level. Mergers and acquisitions activity has picked up promisingly this quarter, as have share listings and corporate bond issuance.

In a recent study, recruitment giant Randstad found that 48 per cent of financial services employees are working harder than they were a year ago. And UNI Finance reported earlier this week that banking and finance unions are increasingly concerned about the health of their members.

It’s worth remembering that despite the often gruelling regimes, banking posts are sought after. Goldman Sachs recieved 17,000 applications for its 350-place investment banking internship this summer – all fully aware that round-the-clock working awaits. But living on the adrenaline of an exciting job can also lead to burnout. Sants and Horta-Osório are merely the poster boys for the strains the Square Mile visits upon its workers. Below them, countless more workers attempt to medicate their stressed minds with counselling and leaves of absence – sometimes voluntarily but often at the direction of concerned managers and in-house occupational health staff.

Some of the biggest firms have expensive arrangements with private health companies to provide dedicated mental health helplines for staff to call when they feel stressed or worse.

Non-contributory private health insurance packages given to workers by many companies now include provisions for mental health, including counselling.

Efforts are being made to overcome outdated attitudes about mental health in the macho world of the City. The Bank of England recently signed a pledge with the Time to Change programme, run by the charities Mind and Rethinking Mental Illness, promising to “encourage our own staff to seek help without fear of stigma”.

The bank is looking to beef up its internal help for those suffering from stress, anxiety and depression by recruiting a second in-house counsellor to add to the full-time one it has had for many years.

Having counsellors on the staff is becoming more normal, a development welcomed by mental health campaigners but regarded by some as an attempt to keep problems in house, under the carpet.

Since a tragedy earlier this year when respected intellectual property partner David Latham jumped in front of a Tube train, the international law firm where he worked, Hogan Lovells, has introduced regular talks on mental health and has a full-time occupational health adviser based on-site and a 24-hour help and advice line which rings through to trained counsellors.

Despite their new awareness of the problem, when approached by the Standard for an official account of how they help their workers with stress, it’s clear that some of the City’s big names are still nervous about discussing the topic, citing confidentiality and privacy for not providing even basic details of their programmes.

Bankers at the opposite end of the spectrum from Sants and Horta-Osório reflect the feeling that changing attitudes about stress haven’t necessarily filtered down to the foot soldiers – the interns, analysts and associates who are still at their desks hours after the big earners have gone home.

“I have never been presented with an official policy or document dealing with stress,” says a banker at JP Morgan. “It is all dealt with on an ad hoc basis and if you are unfortunate enough to be stuck with a terrible manager who doesn’t really go for sympathy, then you don’t have many choices,” he says.

A ring-round of young City workers throws up a good range of responses from “yoga and stress management coaching” at a top consultancy to “nothing” at a mid-range bank. The tragic death of 21-year-old Bank of America Merrill Lynch intern Moritz Erhardt in August, who had reportedly worked incredible hours in the run-up to his collapse, shone a spotlight on the working practices at the bottom of the bank food chain.

“I know a few of us grads who have seen a shrink or have been prescribed antidepressants,” says the JP Morgan staffer, “but that may be caused by an obsession with fitting into the typical New York culture of work hard, play hard and let your shrink deal with the mess, as much as actually just wanting to deal with stress.”

JP Morgan says: “We have a 24-hour employee assistance helpline as well as a wellness programme that is heavily promoted and open to all employees.”

Priory-based consultant psychiatrist Dr Richard Bowskill regularly sees City workers whose non-stop schedule brings about stress, anxiety and sometimes depression. “They are often working across time zones, and that presents significant problems,” says Bowskill. “I have people answering their BlackBerries on the balcony on holiday, and doing it surreptitiously so their family don’t notice.”

Bowskill says he can regularly see his City clients’ stress tipping into more serious mental health problems. “If you are starting to get a clinical problem, the weekends will begin to merge with the weekdays in terms of feeling tense and anxious, and the next stage is not being able to concentrate, waking up in the middle of the night, forgetting things.”

The public struggles of Sants and Horta-Osório have forced the City to talk about its stress problem but experts say these are still baby steps. To lose another of the Square Mile’s brightest stars – even temporarily – might be seen as terrible carelessness.

By Joshi Herrmann as published in the London Evening Standard, 18th October 2013

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