International

Britain’s bankers crack under pressure

Pedestrians walk past the columns of the Bank of England, in the City of London in this February 15, 2011 photo. REUTERS/Andrew Winning

LONDON: Dwindling job security, heavier workloads, regulatory upheaval and the poor public image of the banking sector are taking a toll on the mental health of Britain’s bank workers. Eight years after the global financial crisis, stress in the industry has pushed up demand for insurance to protect revenues against the cost of paying staff too sick to work, insurance data show.

“The problem has gone into a new stratosphere since the financial crisis. ... Those who still have a job are vilified,” said Jagdev Kenth, director of risk and regulatory strategy in the financial institutions group at Willis Towers Watson.

“Most haven’t had anything to do with the scandals. They’re working longer hours, doing two to three jobs, under greater pressure. Something has to give.”

Once havens for prestigious, highly paid and lifelong careers, banks have undergone rapid cultural and structural change at the behest of regulators tasked with reining them in.

Tougher capital rules, hefty misconduct fines, and the closure of riskier business lines have forced banks to slash staff.

Ten of Europe’s largest lenders have axed 130,000 jobs since June, Reuters data shows.

The impact of stress has reached all the way up to the higher echelons of the banking industry. In 2011, Lloyds Chief Executive Antonio Horta-Osorio took two months off after suffering sleep deprivation and exhaustion.

Two years later senior British banker Hector Sants, at the time head of compliance at Barclays, was signed off on medical after suffering stress. Sants subsequently resigned.

As risks of a global recession mount, investors want banks to slim down further. Almost three out of four bank employees admitted to workplace stress manifested by anxiety attacks, insomnia, headaches and depression, a survey conducted by trade union Unite between September and December showed.

Some 85 percent of respondents, mainly working in retail and back-office roles at Lloyds Banking Group, Royal Bank of Scotland, HSBC and TSB, said they worked additional unpaid hours last year.

Around two-thirds of respondents cited heavier workloads and around a fifth blamed pressure to perform. Seventy-two percent said they were considering quitting their jobs as a result.

“Work-related stress is a very serious and increasing problem,” said Dominic Hook, the union’s national officer for finance, responsible for 130,000 members in financial services.

The British Bankers’ Association said protecting staff’s physical and mental well-being was “a top priority” for its members, who are devising more innovative ways to prevent problems occurring.

These include in-house counselors, mental health “first aid” courses, yoga sessions for traders and more comprehensive mental health care plans.

HSBC said it had a number of initiatives to reduce stress-related illnesses. “These include providing a health care plan to all employees with a comprehensive mental health benefit for employees and their family,” it said.

Several U.K. lenders have teamed up with the Bank Workers Charity to provide training for line managers on supporting stressed staff more sensitively.

“Banks are conscious that there are trends that make life stressful for their employees. ... They are focusing on well-being in a way that they weren’t 10 years ago,” Paul Barrett, head of wellbeing at the Bank Workers Charity, told Reuters.

“There is some way to go, but they are being more proactive.”

Demand for special insurance products known as group income protection policies is rising steadily among financial-sector employers, according to global insurer MetLife.

Suicide mortality rates per 100,000 of population in the City of London, home to the historic Square Mile financial district, have consistently outnumbered any other London borough since 2009, government data accurate to end-2013 shows.

“Part of the problem is that we are an industry that downsizes all the time,” said one banker who has been made redundant several times in a career spanning more than three decades. “London is also the first place people cut. There’s a constant threat of being axed in London,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity as he is still seeking work in the sector.

Those suffering from stress in the workplace were reluctant to talk to Reuters on the record given the sensitive nature of the topic. This may also mean many cases go unreported as employees fear telling their line managers or colleagues.

New patient assessments at a specialist well-being clinic operated in the City by private mental health care firm The Priory are up 106 percent in the year to Jan. 31, with more than 70 new patients registering on average each month.

“People are feeling overwhelmed with the vast change in this business and in their careers,” consultant adult psychiatrist Dr. Paul McLaren said.

“Some people may thrive on that but many more struggle and this increases the chances of them developing a mental illness, particularly if they have a vulnerability.”

The biennial Staying@Work Survey, which covers around 1,700 companies worldwide, showed more than four-fifths of employers thought a lack of work-life balance and excessive organizational change were the biggest burdens on staff.

But 69 percent of employees said their top concern was inadequate staffing, followed by 65 percent who identified poor pay.

That means prospects for a major rebound in mood and morale among bank workers look remote.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 16, 2016, on page 5.

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