Banking and finance organisations wanting to get serious about promoting workplace mental health “need to go beyond yoga, free fruit bowls, and engagement surveys”, and grapple with limiting the risk of their employees experiencing “moral distress” as a result of their work.

That was the message National Mental Health Commissioner Lucinda Brogden had for the Banking and Finance Oath’s inaugural Banking and Finance Ethics Conference in Sydney on June 8, 2017. The title of her address was “Purpose and Identity and the Moral Injury Caused When Both are not Recognised”.

“Employers have a legislative obligation to provide people with a safe place to work,” Brogden said. “Not only physically safe but [well managed for limiting] psychological risks as well.”

Workplace moral distress comes from knowing what should be done but not having the resources or empowerment to do it, Brogden explained. Sometimes this hits people in the moment but it can affect them at a later time as well. When someone’s work duties require them to act in a way that does not align with their values, it creates cognitive dissonance, which can lead to moral distress. At its most extreme, moral distress can lead to suicide.

Much of the understanding psychologists have of this phenomenon comes from working with the military, but it is becoming more common in a range of other industries, including financial services.

Rates of suicide have traditionally been higher across occupations that give workers greater access to means to harm themselves, such as medication or guns; however, in recent years, there has been a rise in suicide rates across professional services, notably in finance and the law.

“I do wonder whether some of that comes from the moral distress that they are experiencing or if [the distress] is a compounding factor with the general life stressors that we are seeing,” Brogden said.

Beyond yoga, fruit and surveys

Brogden explained that too many employers try to jump straight to offering “positive extras” to encourage a more mentally healthy workplace, without doing anything to address the areas of conflict or dysfunction that are potential causes of psychological distress in their workers.

“We try to jump to the positive – introducing the yoga, the fruit bowl, the staff party – but you have to work on reducing the negative before you can introduce the positive.”

Brogden said organisations often forget how basic the elements of staff satisfaction are.

“What most people want is a reasonable job that lets them spend time with their families and have the opportunity to take a holiday.”

It is commonplace for big organisations to spend a lot of time and money on value statements that are kept on the intranet or displayed on the wall but bear no resemblance to the reality of the workplace culture, she said.

“Only 23 per cent of people in a recent Gallup poll believe they can implement their organisation’s stated values, so when you think about the amount of money spent on developing those documents, it is not a very good return on investment.”

She said it was notable that financial services companies are more likely than those in other industries to feel the need to specify honesty or integrity among their organisation’s core values.

Brogden also warned that most staff engagement surveys are a complete waste of time and money.

“We ask the same questions over and over again and do nothing with the answers.”

Money matters and more

Getting remuneration structures right is critical to driving sound ethical behaviour, she said.

“Too often, we still tend to promote the rainmaker and forgive their sins.”

Other factors that influence the tone of behaviour in a workplace include company profits, team interests and friendship groups.

“Some of the more toxic environments are the smaller teams. I think that is something we need to be mindful of and looking for in our organisations. Where does some of this behaviour come from and the nature of the teams?”

Brogden said that creating psychologically safe workplaces was not only the right thing to do, but also offers long-term financial benefits for companies that succeed.

“The work we have done with the OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] suggests that if we can improve our mental health system by 25 per cent, we can deliver a 1 per cent improvement on gross domestic product (GDP). This means there is a strong argument to invest to save,” she said. “And, of course, GDP is really the combined output of all the employers in the country. Every dollar invested in making our workplaces mentally healthy and free from psychological risk yields, on average, a $2.30 return.”

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