Wellness Far Gone: Banking on Two-Bit Stress Management Programs

By | July 30, 2017
Worker drinking hand sanitizer

One banker reported that the stress drove them to be addicted to drinking hand sanitizer. (Video frame from RT)

If you happen upon your boss smacking a co-worker in the shins with a two-by-four, would you step in to offer the co-worker a Tylenol?

Consider the plight of workers caught in the middle of a banking scandal. You know the one: Bank workers were pressured into “selling” unneeded and unauthorized accounts and services to existing customers. The workers were damned if they did and damned if they didn’t: Threatened with termination if they fell short of unachievable sales goals; fired — 5,300 of them — when they were caught creating phony accounts to meet those goals. Whistleblowers were subject to retaliation.

This 1-minute video will help you catch up: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6d9SIYntIlE

Research has shown time and time again that job demands and job control — in addition to a host of other psychosocial factors at the workplace like effort-reward imbalance, organizational injustice, work-life conflict, and chronic overtime — lie at the heart of worker wellbeing.

Bank workers, given voice via the New York Times and CNNMoney, bear witness to the reality of how systemic “job strain” compromises physical and mental health.

A worker told the New York Times:

One morning, before meeting with a customer, in which I knew I was going to have to sell unneeded services, I had a severe panic attack. I went to the bathroom and took a drink of some hand sanitizer. This immediately reduced my anxiety. From that point, I began drinking the hand sanitizer all over the bank. In late November 2012, I was completely addicted to hand sanitizer and drinking at least a bottle a day during my workday. In December, I was confronted by management about my behavior. I decided to seek treatment and went on leave.

In the same article, a bank worker who had been scolded for not conning an elderly woman into a credit card by telling her she could use it as identification, reported:

There were numerous days where I would hide in the men’s bathroom crying. It got so bad that one day I left work to go to the emergency room because I thought I was having a heart attack. It turns out it was an anxiety attack.

CNNMoney, in a report from an insightful series by business journalist Matt Egan, told of one worker who said that “trying to balance the bank’s aggressive sales goals without doing something illegal and sacrificing her morals pushed her into deep depression.” The employee alleged the “constant pressure” and ethical conflict led to migraines and other physical and psychological problems.

CNNMoney reported:

The experiences recounted by these employees underscore the human toll inflicted by a work culture that many former Wells Fargo employees said forced them to cheat and even break the law. Some described migraines and severe anxiety. Several complained of stomach ailments because they were denied bathroom breaks.

A branch manager who had been pressured to have workers open unauthorized accounts “said she suffered ‘severe depression and anxiety’” as a result and had to “take medical leave and resigned in 2008 due to the stress.”

According to bank workers, these practices may have been going on for nearly 10 years. A recent CNNMoney article about the aftermath of the scandal says problems persist, with many employees being treated for mental health problems resulting from a toxic culture.

The issue of workers being denied bathroom breaks is a troubling one that came up often during CNNMoney’s conversations with employees. It’s unclear how widespread the practice is now, but former and current employees say it resulted in stomach-related ailments in the past.

As for wellness… the bank claims, “Our culture supports team members wherever they are on their health and well-being journey.”

“Wherever they are.” Unless they are in the bathroom, apparently.

In addition to the usual wellness offerings — health risk appraisals and screenings — this bank offers stress management programs, according to the company’s Benefits Book. Not only are workers offered an opportunity to take part in online wellness modules and telephonic health coaching that aim to fix health risks including — among other things — stress, the bank offered workers a $400 incentive to complete one of the programs.

— “Hello, Mr. Health Coach?”

— “Yes, how can I help you?”

“My job at the bank is a living hell. I have impossible sales quotas. I work 14-hour days to try to meet them. My boss insists I sell illegally, and bullies me if I don’t. My stomach is in knots, but I’m not allowed to go the bathroom. My heart is constantly pounding, my head hurts, and my family and finances are falling apart.”

— “I see. Have you tried mindfully counting your breath? Relaxing your muscles from your head to your toes? How about coloring books — that’s a new thing that helps with stress. Or I could send you a link to a time management module.”

To be fair… This banking company offers robust employee benefits that can genuinely help employees address psychosocial stress and other hardships. Eligible workers are provided with paid family leave, generous tuition reimbursement, adoption assistance, and 401(k) match up to 6%. If anything, the bank exemplifies how even the best well-being initiatives don’t amount to a hill of beans when the cost to workers is a brutal job.

Lest you think that these workers are fat cat bankers getting their comeuppance, the affected group reportedly included mostly frontline bank workers earning $10 to $14 per hour.

On the other hand, Fortune reported that the exec in charge of the “phony accounts unit” was granted a $7.4 million bonus in 2015, partly in recognition of her achievement of “strong cross-sell ratios.”

This employer may be an extreme case, and we don’t know the validity of all the workers’ anecdotes (many of them are participating in a class action lawsuit).

But a principle holds true: Stress management programs may offer some relief to workers caught in insufferable circumstances — just as a Tylenol may offer some relief to your co-worker being brutalized with a two-by-four.

The most readily achievable, the most business savvy, and the most meaningful solution, however, is not to hold employees accountable for their stress, or to trivialize their stress, or to try to manipulate them into modifying stress-related behaviors by dangling financial incentives in front of them.

The primary solution is to change the conditions that cause their pain.

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