This article was written by Gregg Hutchings, Acting Head of Insights, and Lelde Leoke, Assessment Analyst, Banking Standards Board.
Like many sectors, banking has experienced big changes to ways of working in a short time since the first UK lockdown in March 2020. While the initial lockdown measures were temporary, the situation they were designed to address continues to evolve. Policymakers, businesses and individuals are facing an array of ongoing challenges, all of which need to be addressed in a context of continuous uncertainty and in an environment of continuously evolving guidance. As we enter another phase of lockdown in the UK and much of Europe, what have we learned so far?
Some banking employees were designated as key financial workers and worked in branches and head offices throughout the initial peak of the pandemic and subsequently. Others have been managing the demands of home lives and work, even after the initial lockdown lifted, often in less than ideal environments and surroundings. Banks and building societies have needed to adapt management and other processes to ensure that employees are supported and the changing needs of their customers and clients are met. They continue to play a central role in supporting individuals and local communities, with a number participating in UK government loan schemes for small and large businesses and also offering mortgage payment holidays.
Over recent months, the BSB has brought together our member firms and others to consider the unique challenges presented by the pandemic to the sector, particularly in relation to employee health and wellbeing, an issue which will remain crucial as we go into winter.
At a roundtable held earlier this year with the City Mental Health Alliance (CMHA), the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) and the Bank of England (BoE) we explored the mental health impact of the crisis. We have also just closed this year’s BSB Employee Survey, including several new questions relating specifically to how employees felt that their firm had responded to the crisis.
The results should provide particularly timely and valuable insights for firms into employee wellbeing and organisational culture, at a time when both remain priorities in an ongoing uncertain, difficult and novel business environment.
At the same time, we have been continuing to analyse the data set that we have gathered over the past four years, in particular, the specific issues reported as having a negative impact on employees’ health and wellbeing, in the light of how they might now be affected by the changes brought about by the pandemic with respect to changed working arrangements. We have also spoken individually with firms to build a picture of the challenges that they are facing and the concerns of their employees.
What did the evidence tell us, going into lockdown?
Resilience has been a key part of the BSB’s focus from the outset, and personal and organisational resilience forms one of the nine key characteristics that we expect to see in any good organisational culture. Our aggregated Survey results since 2016 have shown very little improvement on questions relating to personal resilience and employee wellbeing. The BSB’s 2019 annual assessment found that:
- 42% of employees across the banking sector often felt under excessive pressure at work, and
- 25% said that working at their organisation was negatively impacting their health and wellbeing.
The Thriving at work report and the data from the BSB’s 2017 Assessment show that it is not sufficient for firms to simply put into place new initiatives to improve employee wellbeing; it is important that they are designed to address the causes, as well as the symptoms and that they are deployed as effectively as possible. A culture that encourages a systematic approach to the development and take-up of wellbeing initiatives by employees could successfully improve employee wellbeing.
In 2019, we published a paper that set out eight factors that influence employee wellbeing and personal resilience. The challenges that firms have shared with us since the start of the pandemic have echoed the importance and influence of these factors.
What have firms been seeing and doing?
In our conversations with members, many have told us that first and foremost they were concerned with how well their people were coping. Across all sectors the pandemic has provided a reminder of the importance of organisational resilience and efficiency, and that employee wellbeing is an important element to both.
Firms have been sharing with us the ways in which they have tried to mitigate the impact of changing working arrangements on employee wellbeing. Examples have included improving and increasing access to employee assistance programmes, opening new support channels in the form of counselling and advice services and building online wellbeing hubs and/or mobile applications. Senior leaders have been spending more time on direct communications with their staff, using email, webinars, recordings and holding Q&A sessions. Firms have also shared their efforts to support staff by offering flexible or reduced working hours, adjusting policies relating to physical and mental wellbeing and recruitment and enhancing safety procedures. In addition, many firms have been monitoring health and wellbeing more frequently with pulse surveys.
During this difficult time many employees have had to juggle a full-time role at work alongside caring responsibilities, a situation often exacerbated by class/school closures, concerns over elderly parents, helping family or friends with existing or new medical conditions, or bereavement. Home working has also made it difficult for some employees to separate work from home, with adverse consequences for their own mental health and wellbeing (and potentially spillover implications for their families and colleagues). At our roundtable with the CMHA, FCA and BoE, FCA Chair Charles Randell, noted the emotional challenges employees may go through if they have to take difficult calls in their bedrooms instead of an office, without a place to decompress or peer support on hand. ‘Sleeping where I work and working where I sleep’ is a situation that many employees – not only in the banking sector – have found themselves in.
Other challenges shared touched upon how best to support employee mental health at times when a significant proportion of society is experiencing anxiety and loneliness. Self-reported anxiety levels unsurprisingly rose at the start of the crisis, eased back considerably in the summer and have started increasing again. Almost half of adults in the UK reported feeling high levels of anxiety at the start of national lockdown and almost one in three in August, with the Office of National Statistics anxiety rating increasing from 3.0 in Q4 in 2019 to 5.2 in late March. Having dropped to 3.7 in August, the anxiety rating increased to 4.3 at the beginning of October 2020. Meanwhile, around a quarter reported feeling lonely at least some of the time, a proportion that has remained relatively stable during the crisis5,.
Some firms have also reported that remote working can make it more difficult to provide emotional support to front-line colleagues who have difficult conversations with customers or to equip middle managers to support their teams. Many firms also shared with us that a key area of their focus has been equality, diversity and inclusion. This includes trying to understand their employee base better and accommodate their diverse needs during this challenging time. At the roundable4 Bradley Fried, Chair of the Court of Directors at the Bank of England, emphasised the importance of this issue. In particular, he noted the challenge that working both in and out of the office posed in the context of some groups of employees being potentially more ‘visible’ than others, and the importance of maintaining a sense of organisational fairness and justice.
From temporary adjustment to permanent change
Although a considerable proportion7 of employees might have struggled during this period, there are also many in the banking sector who have felt the benefits of new working arrangements, as observed in a survey run by Deloitte (70% of financial services’ respondents found the working from home experience a positive one, and 36% felt that their wellbeing had improved since the start of the pandemic).
The main reasons given for a positive experience were having no commute, a more flexible work schedule and more time with family. Similarly, as noted from our conversations with banks and building societies, some employees report that their sleep has improved due to the lack of a commute; some have enjoyed more time with their children; and some have found it easier to concentrate and be efficient in quieter work settings. The pandemic has brought to light that organisations can efficiently operate with a wider range of working arrangements and that there is an opportunity to cater better to individual working preferences.
In order to attract and retain talent and improve the overall wellbeing of their employees, firms may be able to use the learnings from the crisis and build some of what were initially seen as temporary working arrangements into a permanent, inclusive and sustainable business model. We hope that the data the BSB is gathering and the light it will shed on organisational culture at individual firms and across the industry as a whole at this unique period will help firms in their efforts to re-shape their workplaces going forward.