Fiona McAslan is Wellbeing Lead overseeing Natwest Group’s wellbeing strategy and global COVID-19 wellbeing response. This includes supporting all of their colleagues and the rolling out of Mental Health champions. Dr Anna Koczwara is Head of Behavioural Science also with Natwest Group.
In this interview Fiona and Anna share how they are supporting colleagues’ wellbeing as the pandemic unfolds, the role that behavioural science is playing, as well as priorities for 2021 and for the longer-term.
Jo: How much have you had to put in place to support colleague wellbeing through the pandemic and how much have you been able to build on what you had in place already?
Fiona: We already had a plan in place to support colleagues’ wellbeing. Our strategy covers four pillars; Mental Health, Financial Wellbeing, Social Wellbeing and Physical Health. This gave us a good foundation. But we’ve had to adapt it quickly around the pandemic and accelerated the launch of some things we already had in mind.
We considered the pressures everyone faced in such a busy time. We decided that it was more crucial than ever to have people on the ground who understand the wellbeing agenda and know where to signpost people to the right support.
With this in mind, we immediately launched a programme for line managers to access mental health training. This was originally scheduled for August/September. But we brought the launch forward recognising that colleagues’ mental health was going to be affected by the pandemic.
Similarly, we brought forward the launch of a resilience module. We are continuing to do some work on the resilience of colleagues.
We also brought forward the building of a Wellbeing Champion Programme across the bank. We currently have over a thousand champions across the globe who are working with us, very successfully.
Other things we have brought by really listening to our colleagues and understanding some of their challenges includes our Virtual GP service to everybody. This ensures people can access the right support and resources as quickly and easily as possible.
In the beginning the team and I were very busy making sure that all the information colleagues needed was readily available and building a ‘wellbeing Covid hub’ to store the material. This is still running now. It’s split by colleague groups; those working alone, frontline workers, people juggling childcare etc. It steers them to the appropriate wellbeing resources. This of course continues to evolve with the new information and guidelines relating to the pandemic.
Jo: What measures have you put in place to enable large proportions of workers to work remotely?
Anna: Natwest is committed to being a purpose led-organisation. Our purpose is focused around championing potential, helping people, families and businesses to thrive. Since the start of the year we had mobilised a number of workshops and coaches to help all of our leaders understand what it means to lead in a purpose led organisation.
The pandemic has led us to pivot on some of this work,, adapting workshops and 1:1 sessions to enable us to better support managers with the new responsibilities they were now facing. Many are working in a way that they’ve never had to before; either continuing to serve frontline customers under very different circumstances or with whole teams and departments suddenly working 100% remotely. Wellbeing has become more important than ever.
We set up drop-in coaching services so that any managers, no matter what level, are able to come in and have confidential one-to-one coaching and support for any leadership issues they may be grappling with. This could be either on a personal level or related to how they support their team.
We also acted really fast. Within a matter of weeks, we had large proportions of our people working from home, which is something we’ve never had before. How the technology and services teams facilitated this is phenomenal. We had great logistics operations to make sure people had suitable work equipment delivered to their homes; computers, tables, office chairs etc, thinking about peoples’ mental and physical wellbeing. All of this makes a real difference because people aren’t usually set up for working from home for a prolonged length of time.
We also had to work out how best to help managers manage a team remotely, keep a team connected and run great meetings etc.
We noticed that there was lots of conflicting information out there which was confusing. Our CEO Alison Rose asked us to write some really simple guidance for colleagues. ‘Top 10 tips for managing a team remotely’, ‘Top 10 tips for brilliant virtual meetings’ based on the best research available. These included tips on how to implement things you’d do more naturally in person and make it work in a virtual way – making sure inclusion continues to happen, that everyone has their voice in a meeting, also thinking about how you incorporate those ‘water cooler moments’ into a virtual day.
It was also important to understand the additional cognitive strain that being on constant video conferencing was putting on people and how we could best mitigate that, providing reassuring guidance based on evidence, including ‘that sometimes a conversation on the telephone is actually OK’.
Jo: It’s really exciting to see you drawing from evidence with behavioural science team insights that feed across the business. Could you tell me more about how that works and what role the behavioural science team plays in linking with other parts of the business?
Anna: Our team has three broad pillars of work; we cover people assessments, capability frameworks and behavioural science consultancy to improve customer and colleague outcomes. .
The team was set up in February this year but COVID-19 accelerated the evolution of this kind of work. We’ve focused on thinking about and understanding our communications, to both colleagues and customers and supporting Fiona’s team in standing up our wellbeing response to covid.
With people receiving so much information have at the moment, cognitive overload is a real risk. We need to make sure that we’re drawing on the right techniques to share salient information to have the most positive impact.
We are also thinking about how to make things engaging and easily shareable.
Fiona: Our CEO, is such a strong advocate for wellbeing and is really leading from the front, providing clarity and support. She has emphasised that it is our opportunity to show we are a purpose led organisation. Having our senior leadership being so involved means that it hasn’t been difficult to do the right thing.
We are spending a considerable time thinking about our customers and caring for them. Being kind to ourselves is also a consistent message in our communications; self-compassion is needed.
Jo: Thinking about the longer-term strategy, what do you think are the main challenges of the pandemic for wellbeing?
Fiona: At the moment we are prioritising Q4 and Q1. From a UK perspective, getting through winter is an absolute priority for us. We are very aware how different a pandemic during the winter is in comparison to the summer.
We have lots of emotional wellbeing resources and we’ve introduced a new emotional wellbeing programme called ‘SilverCloud’. People will have the information and support right there and we’ve built in the referral route so that if extra support is needed, they know exactly where to go.
Our immediate priority is making it really easy for leaders. There’s a wealth of information out there and our role is to simplify that right down. We’re collaboratively producing a leaders’ pack on wellbeing at the moment, working in partnership with the behavioural science team.
Our priority for 2021 will be dialling up the physical activity element and social wellbeing.
We are seeing people sitting for longer, not getting up and not taking breaks. People know what they need to do, but don’t actually do it. We have to help make the shift from being something we ‘know we need to do’ to ‘actually doing it’. We are working on a new campaign called ‘Live Well being active’.
Another priority for us in the longer term is ‘staying connected’. We’re finding that people are really well connected within their teams, but we’re missing that broader connection; the water cooler moments or meeting on the stairs.
We are currently building a soon to be launched, ‘colleague engagement calendar’. This is a mixed educational piece. We’ve compiled it with our wellbeing partners around nutrition, physical activity, posture etc. But it also looks at how people can create spaces and take the time out to go and do something a little bit different.
We’ve had some fantastic examples which have had a massive effect. Colleagues supporting each other peer to peer. One example was even reading a bedtime story on zoom so parents can could have a break. Self-compassion kicked in and we are looking at how we continue to build on that and maintain those social connections.
So physical activity and social aspect will be dialled up next year. We also plan to firmly embed the emotional wellbeing programme we already have in place.
Anna: We’ve also been talking about the ‘third quarter phenomenon’, which a concept which originates from research into individuals, such as astronauts or submariners who work in isolated spaces for extended periods of time. Parallels drawn by academics to our current situation, include having to adapt quickly to a new environment, being separated from family and friends and coping with potential threat and danger whilst also dealing with uncertainty.
It documents how many people are now experiencing higher levels of irritation and frustration with others and more negative feelings. We’ve reiterated the message that it is ‘normal to feel like this’ because of the circumstance we find ourselves in. Even those who may have never had mental health challenges before may experience difficulties.
Central to our messaging has been to reassure people that it’s absolutely OK to be finding it hard right now, discuss reasons why they might be struggling and to talk about some of the things a person can do, like goal setting, to start to manage some of these feelings.
Also what we’ve done really well as an organisation is look at what we’ve learnt. We’re really committed to being a learning organisation and celebrating the good things that we’ve done. People are very proud of how we have responded to the pandemic
We’ve been able to move quickly and get services and products to our customers, especially our vulnerable customers. We’ve been able to give clarity to our colleagues about what support was available to them and worked across different areas of the business to get products to market quickly.
We are looking at how we hold on to these lessons, recognise all the great stuff in the way we’ve worked and think about how we embed that in future ways of working too.
We’re also stepping back and thinking about what kind of managerial skills and capabilities are needed to support more blended forms of working and longer-term remote working in the future. We’re looking at the role of the manager and placing an emphasis on things like communication, coaching and pastoral care. This is at the forefront of our longer-term strategic planning.
Jo: The pandemic has brought many challenges, but it has also given us a chance to reflect on how we are working. If there was one key personal learning from this experience that you would like to harness as we look to the future, what would it be?
Anna: For me, it is the value of collaboration. We have all had to step outside our normal routines and we have had to work together, and quickly deliver solutions for our customers and our colleagues.
Fiona: Revisiting a theme from our earlier discussion, self-compassion. It is OK to feel that this is hard, this is tough, but everyone is in it together. It is important to be kind to ourselves.
About the author
Dr Jo Yarker is a Director of Affinity Health at Work and holds an academic post at Birkbeck, University of London, working in a job-share with Rachel Lewis. As a psychologist, specialising in work and health she is passionate about understanding what we can do to foster fulfilling, healthy and productive work, particularly under times of challenge. Her award winning research has been funded by the Health and Safety Executive, Department of Work and Pensions and Chartered Institute of Personnel Development and organisations. Author of more than 150 articles, book chapters, guides and toolkits, Jo presents frequently at professional and industry conferences.