With home working looking set to continue for many in the financial services sector, can mindfulness play a role in managing stress and boosting productivity?
by Sophie Mackenzie
Many in the financial services sector have faced a whole new set of pressures since the Covid-19 lockdown began early in 2020: juggling work and childcare while working from home; coping with extraordinary market volatility; supporting customers concerned about losing their livelihoods and homes; isolated from their normal workplace support structures; possibly even dealing with the illness and loss of loved ones.
Keep an eye out for our follow-up article on the impact of Covid-19 on mental health
Research among 2,000 UK working adults by the insurer Canada Life finds that almost half (46%) of working employees have felt more pressure to be 'present' during the lockdown, according to its June 2020 press release outlining the findings. More than a third continue to work while feeling unwell, with 16% citing fear of redundancy as their reason. And many have found their work-life balance impacted, with 25% starting work earlier and 24% juggling their hours around childcare and homeschooling. UK schools have reopened since the research was published, but for how long?
Paul Avis, Canada Life group insurance marketing director, said in June: "The 'always on' work culture we've adopted over the past decade has come to a head; the lockdown is making it worse and employees feel like they can't switch off. As the physical and mental wellbeing of UK employees is stretched to the limit, productivity could be significantly hit [for more on productivity, see The Review's interview with PIMFA CEO Liz Field]."
Mindful of mental health
As The Review Professional Refresher on mindfulness points out, "the modern term 'mindfulness' is closely related to the Pali (the language in which the teachings of the Buddha were first written) term 'sati', which means: awareness, attention, remembering." The module explains that mindfulness "applies that sati approach, but with acceptance and compassion, and without judgement". The three components of mindfulness are, therefore:
- awareness of the
- present experience with
Before the pandemic, many firms in the sector had already explored mindfulness training and practice as a way to support wellbeing and foster productivity in their workforce. However, mental health remains a sensitive subject that some in the financial services sector are reluctant to discuss.
"It's a delicate issue," says Paul Barrett, head of wellbeing at the Bank Workers Charity. "Banks are protective of their brand image since the 2008 financial crisis and anything that's not business as usual can be seen as risky. But most banks have seen mindfulness as a positive and have offered it, to a greater or lesser extent, to help employees manage their wellbeing and improve their focus."
A 2017 white paper by Bank Workers Charity, titled Mindfulness in the workplace, reports that mindfulness training has been adopted in some parts of the financial services sector, with Barclays, JPMorgan and Lloyds Banking Group among those that have offered training to their employees.
According to the white paper, more than 13,000 employees at the American healthcare insurance firm Aetna have attended at least one mindfulness class, and "the participants reported a significant reduction in their stress levels and an improvement in sleep quality". It also says the employees experienced 62 minutes of extra productivity per week and its organisational data shows that healthcare costs dropped by US$2,000 on average for participants, compared to colleagues who didn't receive training.
The Bank of England has advocated a 'mindful approach to economics'; and the Royal Bank of Scotland launched a number of mindfulness support tools for its staff to mark World Mental Health Day in 2016.
"Our inherent negativity bias means we veer towards worst-case scenarios – a human instinct developed to keep us safe in times of danger"
Louise Chester is founder and managing director of Mindfulness at Work, a consultancy supporting corporate flourishing to over 250 clients across the financial services sector and beyond. She shares that during the lockdown and its lifting, her clients have reported their employees experiencing an understandable turmoil of emotions.
"People say they are feeling fear, anxiety, boredom, hopelessness, denial and a sense of loss," she says. "These feelings manifest in changing behaviour, even if we are not aware of it. Our inherent negativity bias means we veer towards worst-case scenarios – a human instinct developed to keep us safe in times of danger."
Our emotions may not be rooted in rationality, but they have clear links to the situations in which so many have found themselves, as Louise explains. People may experience boredom and the need for distraction as a means of coping with anxiety. Their jobs may be at risk or they may feel like they've lost their identity as a high-powered worker in their home working environment. They may question decisions they have made around status and material possessions, and the human and moral value of the organisations they work for. A survey by the Office for National Statistics of 2,500 adults, published on 18 September 2020, shows that 50% of respondents feel the pandemic is affecting their work. The previous ONS survey of 2,500 adults, published on 4 September 2020, shows that 39% of respondents feel the pandemic is affecting their wellbeing, with 9% reporting worries of possible job loss and 9% worrying about returning to work.
The loss of our 'normal' way of life and the negative emotions that arise from it aren't just upsetting to experience; they have a real impact on people's ability to work efficiently and exercise good judgement.
Dr Friedhelm Boschert, founder and managing director of the Mindful Finance Institute (Vienna, Cologne, Oxford), a joint enterprise dealing with mental health and support services in the finance sector, says: "We have lost our routines, and the brain likes routine. We are less focused, calm and clear. In finance, we see a lot of people finding decision-making harder at home and taking longer than usual to make decisions, and making decisions that are not optimal." Friedhelm bases this observation on more than 25 online seminars on resilience in times of crisis, which he ran in April and May 2020, with more than 400 participants from companies of different sizes. "I always asked about how they cope with the home-office situation and roughly 75% of the participants responded that it's harder for them to make decisions when working at home."
Friedhelm, who has a PhD in corporate culture, explains that distractions at home – such as unfamiliar background noise and the needs of children – can make it more difficult to focus, and the loss of a familiar routine that alleviates the need to think about everyday actions such as our commute to work, creates stress and affects the brain's ability to focus. In June 2020, the number of UK adults experiencing depression had almost doubled from pre-Covid-19 figures (July 2019–March 2020) to one in five, according to figures from the Office for National Statistics. The majority, 84.9% of respondents, report that stress and anxiety were the most common symptoms affecting their wellbeing.
A review by Elsevier Public Health Emergency Collection, which looks at various studies, reports that quarantine and self-isolation have a particularly severe impact on mental health, "including post-traumatic stress symptoms, confusion, and anger. Stressors included longer quarantine duration, infection fears, frustration, boredom, inadequate supplies, inadequate information, financial loss, and stigma".
How can mindfulness help? Louise says it can give people an awareness of how they are feeling and reacting. "It brings a sense of curiosity and kindness to our emotions, creating space between us and the feeling," she continues. "We could, for example, notice that we're anxious and explore why that is, if it is serving us well, and what factors – such as sleeplessness – could be contributing to it."
"It brings a sense of curiosity and kindness to our emotions, creating space between us and the feeling"
The CISI Professional Refresher on the topic says that mindfulness can be a healthy way to manage stress in the longer term. Practicing mindfulness, the module says, could help encourage these attitudes:
- Non-judging: Becoming aware of the judgements our mind tends to make.
- Patience: Allowing events to unfold in their own time.
- Beginner's mind: Viewing everything with a sense of curiosity and openness to discovery.
- Non-striving: Being in awareness of the present moment without any specific goals.
- Acceptance: Embracing how things really are.
- Trust: Trust in your feelings, intuition and wisdom.
- Letting go: Noticing thoughts come and go without clinging to them.
Mindfulness can also help facilitate a more efficient recruitment process, says Louise. "We need to have a calm, clear and focused mind to make sure we are defining the recruitment criteria correctly. We need to be alert for biases in the system and within ourselves, and correct for them in a non-judging way. And we need to be fully present with any recruit we are interacting with – to give them and the process our full attention, so that we are processing the data of the interaction using the area of the brain associated with good decision-making, the pre-frontal cortex."
"Ultimately, being mindful supports a resilience mindset, being present and aware of our thoughts and feelings, including any negativity that may be taking centre stage in our mind. People expect the mindfulness practice to be calming, but it might not feel comfortable at all. This discomfort enables you to take appropriate action to deal with those things while supporting yourself with care. So it's practice for the challenges of everyday life," she adds. The Professional Refresher mindfulness module also contains a meditation exercise that members can use in order to put mindfulness into practice.
"Our training makes people aware of the emotional side of decision-making," Friedhelm says. "By taking your 'emotional temperature' before making a decision, you can become aware of a sense of stress or negative bias. We introduce that chance to pause and reflect, and help people to learn good routines and better structure their day."
Seen a blog, news story or discussion online that you think might interest CISI members? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.