Taking on ‘Macho’ Culture: Banks Launch Wall Street’s First Mental Health Initiative

As workers trickle back into offices, firms team with a nonprofit to tackle the wellness perils that have long-plagued Wall Street

The Charging Bull on Wall Street

People line up to snap a photo with The Charging Bull on Wall Street. Sculptor Arturo Di Modica created the art-turned-tourist-hotspot to symbolize the strength of America’s financial district. Bowling Green in the Financial District, NY. Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2022. Riley Farrell for NY City Lens.

The financial sector’s reputation for 100-hour workweeks and burnout, whether its employees are in-office or remote, proceeds it, said Morgan McKee, the vice president at a private equity firm in New York City. McKee said she used to work in banking but left Wall Street due to the grueling, yet unstimulating work. 

“You’re like a monkey cranking through Excel,” McKee said, referring to her all-nighters in banking. 

McKee’s experience of stress and depression in finance represents Wall Street’s workaholic culture that – at least outwardly – a handful of companies hope to change for the better. Six financial firms – UBS Group, CVC Advisors, Mizuho Financial Group Inc., Riverside Co., Varde Partners and Deutsche Bank – are partnering with a New York City mental health nonprofit on a specially-curated-for-Wall-Street initiative. The Wall Street Mental Health Collaborative launched Feb. 8 and participating companies committed to the program for one year. 

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, banking was bleak. In a 2019 Psychiatry NYC study of financial advisors, 71% of respondents said they were moderately stressed and 37% said they were highly stressed. Individuals who work in financial services are 1.5 times more likely to commit suicide than the national average, according to the National Occupational Mortality Surveillance

In a 2021 internal survey at Goldman Sachs, analysts described “inhumane working conditions.” One anonymous analyst said, “the sleep deprivation, the treatment by senior bankers, the mental and physical stress – I’ve been through foster care and this is arguably worse.”

Busy passersby outside Wall Street’s business offices.

The corner of Wall Street and Broadway, lined with business offices. The Financial District in Lower Manhattan, NY. Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2022. Riley Farrell for NY City Lens.

Before shifting into private equity, McKee, like so many other Wall Street employees, earned an Ivy-league MBA, attending the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. McKee worked in NYC banking from 2015 to 2017. During those two years, McKee added, she would often leave the office at 3 a.m., only to return to her desk at 9 a.m. McKee, who did analyses in a team of 78 men and two women at Barclays Bank, said there was a sense of numbness and tunnel-vision among her coworkers. 

“The mentality about banking is very macho,” McKee said. “We put our heads down and worked so that we wouldn’t talk about feeling overwhelmed or having mental health issues because that isn’t ‘cool.’” 

McKee’s loved ones could see the impact banking in New York had in her dark under-eye circles, which were “in every single photo” taken of McKee during that time, McKee added. Still, her junior-level coworkers did not feel allowed to complain. 

“I hate to say this, but really, it’s not that hard of a job,” McKee said. “So, people have to put their heads down and work hard to keep the job because there’re a lot of people who would step in, take their spot and do just as well.”

Data Visualization for Wall Street's Mental Health

Visualizing the numbers of mental health on Wall Street. Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2022. Riley Farrell for NY City Lens.

The initiative comes on the heels of the two-year mark of the pandemic and the inevitability of banking employees returning to the office, at least for part of the week. But the workers will not come back to the same grueling workplace culture of 2019, said Dylan Riddle, the head of media relations at Deutsche Bank. The German-based bank paid mind to mental health when it started its wellbeing first aid program in September 2020, Riddle said. 

“More than a dozen employees in our New York City location are trained ‘Mental Health First Aiders,’ available to assist colleagues who are looking for extra support,” Riddle said, before adding he currently does not feel comfortable speaking on his personal wellbeing or asking his colleagues about mental health.

The Deutsche Bank offices on Wall Street.

The Deutsche Bank offices on Wall Street. Deutsche Bank is one of the six participating firms in this mental health initiative, which has the potential to impact the bank’s 5,000 Manhattan-based employees. The Financial District, NY. Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2022. Riley Farrell for NY City Lens.

The program, with the National Alliance on Mental Illness of NYC (NAMI-NYC), aims to lessen the stigma around the banking industry’s all-too-common issues of depression and anxiety. Throughout this year, among the frantic pace of mergers and acquisitions, these Wall Street companies pledged to check in with their employees, gather feedback and host panels on prioritizing balance.

Deutsche Bank is serving as the initiative’s founding partner. Deutsche Bank, whose first-year analysts boast a $100,000 salary, has allocated a proportionate amount of its budget to foster the mental health of its employees, said NAMI-NYC’s director of workplace mental health Rachael Steimnitz. Each firm financially contributes to the program with different scales of pricing depending on the size of the firm but NAMI-NYC declined to reveal exact monetary figures.

Wall Street’s subway station

Employees depart the train inside Wall Street’s subway station for their shifts at work. The Financial District in Lower Manhattan, NY. Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2022. Riley Farrell for NY City Lens.

Breaking down the timeline of this initiative, Steimnitz said there are two components of the program: leadership steering and training sessions. Occurring every other month, the steering meetings involve suggesting strategies for promoting employee mental health. On months that the steering committee does not meet, there will be one-hour virtual training sessions, available to interns and CEOs alike, that teach about the intersection of mental health and financial services. 

NAMI-NYC’s track record over the past year is recorded in hundreds of participants’ surveys. 90% of respondents said they recommend the training, said Steimnitz.

“Financial services is long hours and short deadlines,” Steimnitz said. “To make the collaborative meaningful, we must address the cultures in which people are working to talk openly and honestly about the changes needed to promote mental health.”