Skip to main content

Mental Health Leadership: Alison Cottrell, CEO of the Financial Services Culture Board

Mental Health Leadership: Alison Cottrell, CEO of the Financial Services Culture Board
Click to enlarge

“In the latest Leadership Series, Alison Cottrell, CEO of the Financial Services Culture Board, shares how the pandemic and events such as Black Lives Matters have changed how banks engage with employees – “employees more likely to describe their firm as ‘caring’ and ‘supportive’”

We have all, as individuals and organisations, learned new things about ourselves over the past eighteen months. While the impact of the crisis on each of us has been different, we have all had to make and adapt to changes in the way we live, socialise and work.

Within firms, this has meant new ways of communicating, taking decisions, assessing risk, managing people and using technology; primarily a reflection of the impact of Covid-19 and the requirement for many employees who could continue to work to do so from home, but also in response to other aspects of societal change such as Black Lives Matter.

The investment made in 2020 in talking with, listening to and supporting employees was evident in the results of the FSCB’s 2020 employee survey – an annual exercise that helps firms assess and manage their organisational cultures. Focusing on the banking sector and run in September of last year, the survey found an overall improvement in scores and especially on questions relating to leadership, responding to staff feedback, and personal resilience. Employees were more likely to describe their firm as ‘caring’ and ‘supportive’, and a strong sense of pride was evident in how firms had helped their customers.

These findings will not have been confined to the banking sector. In 2020, many firms will have recognised a strong sense of purpose and engagement as people pulled together to support each other and their customers. Employers also learned that they could trust their employees, and that the real challenge was persuading people to switch off from work when the office had become their dining table.

Last September already feels, of course, to be a long time ago. Were these results a blip, or the start of something more sustainable? Our 2021 survey, currently in progress, will offer clues. What is clear, however, is that the changes instigated by the pandemic – in particular, with respect to the feasibility of large-scale hybrid working – have some way yet to run. This offers new opportunities for leaders, managers, and all of us in the workplace with, among other changes, increased flexibility and less commuting; but businesses must also recognise the potential challenges.

  • For leaders, maintaining a sense of fairness and organisational justice in the context of change will be key. Perceived unfairness within a firm is corrosive, with implications not only for behaviour and retention but also for health. We have learned in the pandemic to work in different ways and developed new habits and preferences. As flexibility returns, not being able to exercise choice in how and where we work – especially if others can – may easily feel unfair.
  • For managers, hybrid working puts an even greater premium on good communication skills; not just in conveying information, but also in seeking and receiving it. This is particularly relevant when it comes to picking up early signs of stress or other health concerns. If conversation is primarily over a screen, the body language may be lost that would contradict the ready assertion that everything is fine.
  • And for all of us, a working pattern in which less of our time is spent in shared workspace will affect how we build links – social capital – with people we do not routinely see. This matters not only for those early in their roles or careers, or from a productivity perspective, but also for mental health and wellbeing. After a difficult call, meeting or day, talking with colleagues can help keep things in perspective. This can of course happen remotely (and the opportunity to work from home offers many benefits, including for health and wellbeing), but a lack of physical proximity may mean that it is less readily to hand. Social capital is not just career scaffolding; it is also a support structure, and one where a little active maintenance by all of us can go a long way.  

Businesses continue to face uncertainty and challenges. But if they continue to hold on to engagement with their employees and be supportive of their wellbeing, that could go help businesses to ride out future storms.