HSBC: creating an award-winning culture of mindful working

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When asked why he thinks HSBC’s Mindfulness Network has been so successful, winning our Judges’ award for ‘Colleagues who have made the most difference to workplace mental health and wellbeing over the past year: Champions Network’, programme manager Sean Tolram says that one reason is that the mindfulness programme was never a “corporate directive”.

The programme grew organically out of one employee – IT architect Mari Thorman’s – passion for mindfulness and her belief it could boost wellbeing at work. This was over ten years ago.

“Especially in large organisations, there’s often a bit of cynicism around these kinds of initiatives,” says Tolram. “People tend to wonder: are they just rolling this out just to tick a box? Are they doing it because they want us to spend more hours at work? The fact that it’s grown naturally in an organic way means people trust it more”.

In this article we focus on how Tolram has approached embedding the mindfulness programme at HSBC, as well as the crucial role that the network of mindfulness champions plays.

We’ll be putting together a report, including more details about what set the winning entries of the Make A Difference Awards apart in the coming weeks.

Mindfulness is not just meditation

For many, ‘mindfulness programme’ will conjure up images of employees meditating and the creation of ‘quiet rooms’ in offices for people to retreat to. While this can be part of mindfulness, Tolram stresses it’s vital to realise that mindfulness is not a ‘one size fits all’ solution and will look different for different people.

Consequently, the content HSBC has created around mindfulness focuses on the neuroscience of slowing your brain down in a variety of ways. Doing this can reap benefits such as better focus, innovation, productivity, efficiency and, of course, wellbeing.

One size doesn’t fit all

Employees can work mindfully in ways that suit them, from looking out of the window for ten minutes to going outside, to formal meditation. The key is that these mindfulness techniques can be seamlessly integrated into a normal working day.

The biggest business problem that mindfulness addresses is the sense of overwhelm many employees feel due to excessive workload. Tolram argues that mindfulness tools can help people reduce overwhelm by developing greater awareness of where their time is going, and better managing their stress levels. Of course, if the overwhelm is caused by core organisational issues, then mindfulness won’t get rid of those. But it can empower employees to notice what’s happening and drive positive change.

Mindful working helps alleviate workload overwhelm

“The number one cause of stress in the workplace is workload but sometimes it can be self-inflicted. Many of us are conditioned to constantly fill every second of our time,” he says.

According to Tolram,  mindfulness teaches people about the value of whitespace to “slow down to speed up”. It helps employees to look at their workload critically, rather than mindlessly going from task to task; it encourages them to prioritise what is truly important, delegate other tasks or even ditch them because they don’t add any value.

“You’d be amazed at what insights come to you while staring out of the window for ten minutes and giving your brain a chance to rest,” he says. “What we’re trying to do is create those types of opportunities where employees can access a different part of their brain so they can achieve their true potential.”

Securing budget

The turning point came when the mindfulness initiative expanded to several regions across the UK, led by volunteer champions, and it caught HR’s attention. HR then put some budget behind it to formalise the structure more, but it wasn’t until three years ago that significant budget was secured, which Tolram describes as a “big milestone”.

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A senior manager who really believes in mindfulness was instrumental in influencing the business’s decision to back the programme in a serious way.

“Having a very senior manager involved allows you to really embed a programme,” he says. “Where there isn’t this buy-in, we’ve noticed that employees don’t always feel comfortable taking advantage of what we’re doing. They don’t feel comfortable taking breaks, for example, or generally looking after themselves. If you truly want to change the culture and embed more healthy, sustainable ways of working, endorsement has to come from the top.”

Getting senior management buy-in

Putting energy into getting this vital senior management backing has been a focus for Tolram. He’s learnt that he doesn’t necessarily need senior managers to believe in mindfulness personally, or attend courses. He just needs them to advocate for employees being given the option to use this tool.

“I’ve started to move away from trying to convince people of the benefits, because that’s exhausting,” he says. “What we’ve been working hard on is making the science clear, and finding senior advocates who can cover different regions, different parts of the organisation, and spread the word by cascading information down for us. Having their name on an email makes a difference.”

Budget has also enabled Tolram’s team to formalise the structure and offer a range of different employee services. There are two popular types of session; one is a 15 minute guided practice which might take place at the start of a team meeting; the other is a longer 1-2 hour workshop which goes deeper into the science and practical applications. Various topics are covered, such as stress, hybrid working, sleep and multi tasking.

An ambitious plan to increase champions

On average, about 1,500 employees are accessing the foundations course per year and the champions are running about 120 sessions per month; a stat which has doubled in the last year. Around 4,000 employees subscribe to the mindfulness intranet portal.

There are currently 160 champions, with ambitions to raise this to 300 by the end of the year. Volunteers work in addition to their day jobs and, in recognition of their valuable input, a points system was introduced last year. This is where champions can receive points for their contribution, which can be redeemed for a vast array of products and experiences from holidays to gift vouchers.

“Looking at what is available across the organisation and linking to that is a priority for us, because it’s much easier than creating something brand new,” says Tolram. And this recognition scheme is a result of working closely with the Performance & Reward team.

Return on investment

Of course, the mindfulness team isn’t exempt from reporting on its return on investment, which Tolram concedes is a difficult thing to do. He tends to use surveys, where people are asked about their stress levels before embarking on a course and afterwards. This has shown that one of their courses lead to a 30% increase in stress resilience. Organisational demand for courses is also used as a metric; in the last year the number of requests has jumped by 100%.

He has also analysed ‘error rates’ in previous teams, finding that there are huge reductions – around 50% – within a couple of months of training. And, the team has also started doing quick Zoom polls at the start and end of running a mindfulness session to assess impact.

The thorny issue of measuring impact mindfully

“Even though it’s not scientifically verified, it gives you an indication,” he says. “Because measurement can be difficult in wellbeing. It’s so easy to say ‘you have to measure impact to be taken seriously’ but often it’s easier said than done. Like many organisations this is an area where we continue to focus and improve.”

Nevertheless, the programme’s clear impact was one reason that our judging panel deemed this initiative an “outstanding entry” in the Make A Difference Awards. Another was the way its foundations are laid to “continue making a sustainable, positive impact in future”.

Tolram’s future focus is to translate all of the mindfulness courses and sessions into the core languages used across the entire HSBC organisation, so that everyone can benefit from the power of mindful working. His passion for his job, but also in bringing these benefits to wider society, which he’d also like to do as a next step, are clear when he talks about mindfulness:

“It’s such a useful tool to help us deal with situations on a human level with kindness and compassion. The big thing I’ve noticed is how it changes those day to day interactions to make them more pleasant and fun, taking work from being a chore to something you can find fulfilling and rewarding.”

Tolram also appears on our interactive webinar on the value of investing in mental health and mindfulness, which you can watch here

The HSBC Mindfulness Network won the Judges’ Make A Difference Award for ‘Colleagues who have made the most difference to workplace mental health and wellbeing over the past year: Champions Network’, presented at this year’s Watercooler Event in April

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