Business Meeting Financial Services

Building Team Resilience to Overcome Stress in the Financial Services Sector

If you are employed in the UK in the Financial Services industry, the chances are you will be feeling the impact and uncertainty of the Brexit debate on a very personal level. A no-deal Brexit is (at the time of writing) a real possibility, and there is little reassurance from those at the top of Government, let alone from business leaders.

City Minister John Glen admitted “I don’t have a crystal ball… [Job losses] will be so contingent on the nature of that no-deal.” The continuous headlines are a constant reminder that up to 5,000 Financial Services jobs are at risk. Whatever happens, the very threat of job loss and upheaval is likely to cause a dangerous ripple of stress and anxiety throughout the industry.

This all comes at a time when Financial Services employees are already struggling to keep their heads above water. A joint Business in the Community (BITC) and Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) survey1 revealed that Financial Services jobs are 44% more likely to cause a stress-related illness than the average role in the UK. Couple that with only 60% of Financial Services employees considering their line manager to be genuinely concerned about their mental health1, the picture is extremely worrying. Worrying for productivity and the bottom line; and worrying from a more human perspective of ensuring our families, friends and colleagues are okay.

Of course it’s not just about Brexit.

Financial Services employees are increasingly expected to make complicated decisions as the sector itself grows in complexity. Such decisions are often time-pressured and offer little or no room for error. As the ‘manufacturing era’ rapidly fades away in our economy, today’s individual contributors are expected to take on much more responsibility and can no longer rely on management to problem-solve and spell out what needs to be done. These days Financial Services employees act as ‘knowledge workers’, finding their key relationships to be across functions, teams and geographies. This can seem challenging and chaotic; and can frequently cause stress and anxiety.

Many industries are becoming increasingly regulated and Financial Services is leading the way. Under Government and public pressure to avoid a repeat of the Financial Crash a decade ago, the UK Corporate Governance Code and personal accountability has been under the spotlight. From a big picture perspective, this is a fair approach to ensuring fair-play and a more risk-averse and secure industry. From an employee perspective, however, this personal liability could be seen as another cause of angst that needs to be addressed. It is widely accepted that companies in all industry sectors need to innovate if they are to survive, let alone thrive. For Financial Services, with the recent history that is still so fresh in our minds, the balance between risk and innovation is a delicate one.

So what can leaders and employees do to combat stress in the Financial Services sector in this age of uncertainty?

Granted, we have very limited control over what happens next politically or what decisions are made that affect the industries we work in. Taking a leaf out of our own ‘Adapting to Constant Change’ model, the first step in building resilience in a world of constant change is to make our inner voices realistically positive.

  1. What control do I have in this situation?
  2. How much time will this really span?
  3. How can I take ownership and improve things?
  4. What is the true scope of impact on me?

Conventional stress-reduction initiatives are no longer enough

We’ve made a lot of progress in helping our employees cope with stress through generous holiday allowances, flexible working, paid time off, encouraging fun at work, and free gym memberships. But perhaps there is only so much that HR’s wellbeing initiatives can do. There is clearly so much more to be done as 1 in 3 of us in the UK have been diagnosed with a mental health condition1. The average Briton works 40.5 hours per week which leaves little time – in practical and emotional terms – to focus on our own wellbeing.

  • Protecting time away from work is good for physical and mental health, but it can actually increase the aggregate level of stress because of disrupted work and increased pressure on either side of time away.
  • Wellness programmes increase employee fitness to manage stress and help address the consequences of stress, but they don’t reduce the VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) forces that create stress in the first place. They also focus on individual well-being, which is important, but ignore team health, which we will see can actually lead to a reduction in the causes of stress.
  • Fun at work provides an escape from stress, but it is temporary relief. Further, many employees complain that “mandatory fun” ups their stress levels because they would prefer to use the time for addressing their responsibilities.
  • Planning activities do provide clarity around expectations, but continuous change at work for most means that clarity is quickly lost until the next annual planning cycle. Moreover, planning activities can create rigidity that makes it more difficult to adapt to changing circumstances.

Managers are rightly being encouraged to look out for signs of stress – and as a society we seem to be raising our awareness around mental health – but what happens once a manager has identified an employee or colleague at risk? The next steps, beyond the ‘sticking plaster’ option of taking some time out, is often unclear.

We need to go further and make more fundamental changes if we are to overcome stress and build organisational resilience.

Adopting a team-centric approach to building resilience

Perhaps the underlying issue is that we don’t really know how to help each other. It’s no longer just about building personal resilience. In today’s world it has to be a team effort if it has any chance of working.

We have identified three key leadership practices that empower organisations to build a resilient workforce.

  1. Shift focus of responsibility from HR/corporate centre and the manager to the team itself. Whose responsibility is it to build resilience? In a survey of more than 1,000 employees2, nearly half (49%) of Financial Services workers said they do ‘little or nothing’ to manage their own stress levels. Their stress is likely to impact individual and team performance in a sector where detail and precision are absolutely key; let alone the effect on their personal lives.

The truth is, this is too big a problem for it to be the responsibility of individual employees and managers, and HR teams. Even when we do try to take care of our own physical and mental health it’s often not enough. We need a new approach.

If, collectively, we can shift the dial from individual employees feeling pressure to underinvest in themselves; and instead encourage more positive decisions, we could turn a corner.

  • Dynamically Establish Clarity. Financial Services sector employees have continually changing demands placed upon them. Gone are the days of setting a plan, targets or priorities and working towards them until a review several months later. Clarity plays a huge part in building resilience and alleviating stress. It doesn’t come from communicating faster; rather, it comes from communicating the right things at the right time. Shying away from keeping people informed and creating clarity around how the changing world continually adjusts what is expected of us is a common leadership failing. One that, with a team perspective, is within our control to better manage.
  • Leverage Stress. There are two types of stress: destructive and productive. For the most part, external sources of our stress are not going away. We cannot simply remove them or pretend they are not there. Yet the tendency is to focus on fighting and pushing away stress that we interpret as destructive. If, instead, we encourage our people to steer into the root cause of the stressor, acknowledge it and think about a solution to handle it differently next time, we will be on our way to creating a more resilient workplace culture.

    Managers and leaders have a key role to play in forging resilient teams that transform destructive stress into productive stress and improve the business. To do that, they need to deliberately pause, observe, identify root causes, and experiment with solutions; and in the process eliminate or dramatically reduce the cause of the stress and its impact.

Indeed, experimentation is a key part of this and goes hand in hand with vulnerability, bravery, and trust. Being able to admit we made a mistake and being confident in the knowledge we won’t get hauled over the coals for it, is absolutely vital. In turn it will encourage innovation and creativity to be bold and stretch ourselves.

Unfortunately, destructive stress is winning. In our research3, we found that only:

  • Less than 1 in 5 employees said they consistently bounce back from multiple setbacks to achieve a work goal
  • More than two thirds consistently overcome the difficulties encountered in achieving work goals
  • Less than a third consistently show determination when initial attempts do not succeed
  • 1 in 3 can say they consistently pursue goals with a lot of energy
  • A third say they consistently use the lessons they learn from mistakes at work to improve the way they do their job

Resilient teams rebound from setbacks, overcome challenges, and learn from failure again and again, further reducing stressors.


Would your organisation benefit from a new approach to building resilience and overcoming stress?

Ask us for an overview of our Leading for Resilience blended learning journey, part of our Leading in the Digital Age series.


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