“We want a culture where you feel safe in being yourself”
Twelve years ago, Investment Bank Managing Director and Wall Street veteran Peter Toal went through a period of “significant” depression and anxiety – but hid it from colleagues thinking that to admit it would be “weak”. He discusses how his US mental health network is making sure others don’t do the same – and how they’re supporting each other through the ‘new normal’.
When Peter Toal created the Mental Health Awareness Group within Barclays in New York, it might have seemed out of character for a long-time investment banker and 30-year Wall Street veteran.
Peter, who now co-heads Barclays’ Global Fixed Income Syndicate, remembers an industry with little sensitivity to mental health troubles. “It was built to an extent on a macho culture and the ability to work all-nighters and load yourself up with responsibilities,” he remembers. “Historically the feeling had been, ‘I can handle it and can’t show any weakness or any vulnerability, because then I won’t look as good as the next guy.’”
Society generally understands that you should take care of your physical body. But I don’t think people talk enough about mindfulness and their mental wellbeing
Co-head Global Fixed Income Syndicate, Barclays Investment Bank, New York
This struck Peter as unhealthy for both the individual and the industry. Twelve years ago, he suffered a period of significant depression and anxiety which led to “a lot of stress in my personal life, which then impacted my work life”. When seeing a therapist close to his Manhattan office, he remembers he would “sneak out, pretending I was going to lunch or had a meeting. I was hiding it, and I think most people at the time would have done the same thing. At the time, I thought therapists were for weak people who couldn’t handle the daily stresses of life. I now know how ignorant that view is.”
Instead, he says, “what we’re trying to do at Barclays is build a culture where it’s fine to take care of yourself. We want it to be a safe environment, where there are diverse people, where it’s okay to admit vulnerability. We all have stresses in our life and we need a culture that is open to that. I’m trying to get the word out. If I can share my story, then hopefully it will inspire other people to do the same.
“And as a manager, I encourage employees to tell me if there are things going on in their life that may affect their work. It is not an indictment of the worker if their personal life is causing temporary distractions. We all have been there. As a supervisor, it is better to know so that you can help the individual recover more quickly to their potential.”
Peter had heard of a mental health awareness group within Barclays UK through the This Is Me campaign, which aims to tackle stigma around mental health at work by supporting people to tell their own stories. He asked whether there was a similar group in New York – “I didn’t want to lead the group, I just wanted to participate” – he says he was told: “‘There isn’t such a group in NY, but if you want to start one, then go ahead’.”
So Peter began a journey that led to him being named an Accessibility Champion in Barclays Citizenship and Diversity awards. Under the Reach Disability and Mental Health Network, Peter and his network colleagues brought in speakers, hosted awareness events, created a dedicated daily space for meditation and launched many conversations on mental health.
Adjusting to the ‘new normal’
He says the work of the Mental Health Awareness Group is particularly essential at this time of unprecedented changes to daily life. “Each of us handles change and periods of crisis differently,” he says. “Some accept change and go with the flow more easily. Others are consumed with anxiety or fear for themselves and their family.”
His network has adapted to new ways of keeping in touch during lockdown restrictions. “We’re in touch regularly by phone. We recently hosted a call with a psychiatrist to discuss stress, anxiety and coping mechanisms during these times.”
The group has also set up guided meditation sessions for colleagues who need it. “One benefit of doing this over the phone is that we can reach a geographically broader audience, since employees in other locations can dial in.”
Each week that goes by I find myself getting into more of a rhythm. My commute is now just a few paces, I get to see my kids for dinner and I have a newfound respect for what my wife does during her busy days.
Co-head Global Fixed Income Syndicate, Barclays Investment Bank, New York
He’s also working to keep in touch with his team in the Global Fixed Income Syndicate, checking in regularly as a group and individually. “Some of my team live in New York and London where space is usually more cramped – and some are alone and far away from their families,” he says.” These are the people I worry about the most.”
Adjusting to working from home has taken some getting used to, but Peter says there have been positives. “Each week that goes by I find myself getting into more of a rhythm. My commute is now just a few paces into my makeshift office, I get to see my kids for dinner and I have a newfound respect for what my wife does during her busy days.”
Reflecting on what he hopes his mental health network will achieve, Peter says openness is key. “What we often find is that people with mental health issues have been hiding their illnesses forever,” he says. “They don’t want people to know. But we want to create an environment where it’s okay for people to say, ‘I suffer from depression or anxiety and it’s important I see a therapist every week’ or whatever people’s issues are. It’s important we create a safe, inclusive culture where people are openly talking about it.
“Everyone is already focused on physical health. We have a gym in our building and people work out. Society generally understands that you should take care of your physical body. But I don’t think people talk enough about mindfulness and their mental wellbeing.”
Removing the stigma from mental health issues is one of the network’s priorities. The other is a focus on wellbeing. “It’s important that we all take care of our mental state,” says Peter. “This is a high-pressure job – it’s stressful in itself, and when you compound that with a stressful home life, whether you’re a single parent, or are caring for a sick loved one, or going through divorce or bereavement – you don’t have to have a diagnosed mental ‘illness’ to have times in your life where you need to hit pause and focus on some self-care.”
Referring to his own experiences, Peter says “mental health takes a physical toll. If you’re going through a period of depression in your life – and I’m not even talking about illness, but a rough time where you’re not your whole self – then learning things like meditation or talking therapy can lead to better resilience.”
Peter also knows first-hand the stigma associated with mental illness through the experiences of his 15-year old son who has “significant mental health issues”. “Seeing my son struggle every day in social situations is heart-breaking and eye-opening. It is an issue that needs more discussion.”
“Tremendous and rewarding”
As well as a dedicated ‘mind gym’ meditation room – replaced for now with online meditation sessions – in normal times, the network brings in expert speakers and organises monthly ‘conversations on mental health’. Topics vary from ‘anxiety in the workplace’ to ‘suicide awareness and prevention’, to ‘caretaking for loved ones with mental illness’.
Other Barclays networks may be brought in, for example partnering with the military network for a focus on post-traumatic stress disorder. “It’s all confidential,” says Peter, “and you don’t have to speak, but we’ve found that talking about your issues can be therapeutic, and you just might find someone who’s dealing with the same things that you are, so the sessions are really cathartic.”
The uptake for the network has been “tremendous and rewarding”, says Peter, with over 300 colleagues now signed up. But he also adds that “we’ve just scratched the surface, and there’s still a ton to do on both of our main objectives: removing the stigma of mental illness and improving overall mental health awareness”.
Peter says that helping colleagues to be more comfortable in dealing with mental health – having meditation rooms as well as gyms – also makes business sense. “There’s been a cultural shift as the financial industry competes for talent,” he says.
“Young people coming to Wall Street want a different work-life balance compared to 30 years ago. As we look to attract the best people, it’s important that we’re not only diverse from gender, sexual orientation and racial and ethnic perspectives, but that we welcome people with disabilities whether in physical or mental health. If you have talent we want you to know that Barclays is an open culture with accommodations for you, and where you don’t have to hide who you are. We want a culture where you feel safe in being yourself.”