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Protecting Mental Health in a Pandemic and Beyond

By Mike Bodson, DTCC President and CEO | June 10, 2020

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For many businesses across the world, the weeks from mid-March through April are mostly a blur. In financial services, record trading volume surpassed the financial crisis of 2008, extreme volatility roiled global markets and unemployment reached levels not seen since the Great Depression as whole sections of the economy closed. Through careful planning and preparation, our teams at DTCC handled that chaotic environment with incredible precision and efficiency, made all the more remarkable by the fact that about 95% of our colleagues were working remotely.

Through it all, our top priority was protecting the health and safety of our employees while continuing to seamlessly execute for our clients to protect the safety and stability of the global financial system. As that initial adrenaline rush ebbed, however, it became clear that we needed to do more than take care of each other physically. We had to put equal effort into supporting our employees’ mental health.

Most people don’t want to admit to feeling overwhelmed or stressed, particularly in the world of banking and finance. It’s the nature of our industry. But as the crisis extended from weeks to months with no indication of when things would return to “normal,” you could sense a shift in attitude. Too many meetings, scheduled at times when we’d once be commuting to or from work. Longer workdays were tripping into nights. Childcare challenges and home schooling, elder care or roommate issues, or isolation, anxiety and depression all emerged as serious issues. This new way of living and working was still fresh to many of us, and behaviors and practices were emerging that were putting a tremendous strain on our collective well-being.

The impact of the pandemic on mental health is already a significant issue globally, and “a long-term upsurge in the number and severity of mental health problems is likely,” according to the World Health Organization’s brief, COVID-19 and the Need for Action on Mental Health. Before the coronavirus outbreak, depression affected 264 million people worldwide, and the global economy lost more than US $1 trillion per year due to depression and anxiety. The impact of the pandemic will mean that “many people who previously coped well, are now less able to cope because of the multiple stressors generated by the pandemic,” the brief said. For those already suffering with mental health conditions, they could face even more challenges and reduced function in the years to come.

The WHO report echoes discussions we’ve held with outside experts as we begin our own planning for our future. I was struck by one study of firms in Asia and Europe which found that during the early stages of the crisis, as many as one-third of employees experienced a blurring of boundaries between work and life, had deepened anxiety and were distracted by demands and interruptions at home. Those employees fared better in the later stages as they created regular routines. There’s good and bad news here because, while many people have learned how to acclimate, mental health problems will likely become more acute across all demographics.

A Gartner study conducted in April found that most companies planned to keep a portion of their employees working remotely on a permanent basis after the crisis. As a result, management teams will have to place a greater emphasis on employee mental health.

While we will need to experiment and develop best practices, it’s clear that line managers will play a critical role in monitoring and identifying members of their teams who are struggling with isolation and anxiety. Technology will make this easier than it’s been in the past. For instance, new tools to measure productivity—not in the “Big Brother” sense, but to ensure a change in productivity isn’t a sign of a deeper health issue – are already available and being used by many firms across industries. At the same time, more training will be necessary to provide education on the nuances of mental health struggles, the goal is to offer support and assistance before a small problem grows into a crisis.

While we consider how to address these issues long-term, we are also taking concrete steps today, which can inform our future approach. For instance, in recent weeks at DTCC, we’ve launched weekly mental health webinars, mindfulness meditation exercises and online events to promote awareness about the ways that stress impacts colleagues and explore coping mechanisms. We’ve also actively promoted our confidential Employee Assistance Program, seeing the number of employees using that benefit increase as well.

I believe a critical element of any location, or re-location, strategy will involve integrating a comprehensive mental health strategy along with logistics and operations. Left unaddressed, mental health challenges can result in significant business challenge that could impact the success or failure of an organization. And as companies begin to define their new ways of working, the organizations that invest in, and prioritize, mental health will likely find themselves better equipped to meet the challenges of the future because their workforce will be fully engaged, they will attract the best talent and will be in the best position to serve their clients.

There is still a great deal to learn as we continue to move through the pandemic and its aftermath. But if our experiences so far show anything, it’s that solid business performance is intertwined with the strong mental health of our workforce. Finding that successful combination between those two priorities will be a key to our success.