Mental Wellbeing for the Modern Banker
Jake Hale is a Branch Manager for NatWest Group, currently responsible for three branches with a mix of full and part time staff. Rory McIntyre CCBI is a Business Manager at NatWest Group responsible for workforce management software for the Bank and has worked in various workforce management roles throughout the organisation. Both are active members of NatWest Group’s Allied Men network and the Chartered Banker Institute, but as Jake works in a customer centric busy branch environment and Rory works in a back office Agile environment, they have different perspectives on Men’s wellbeing at work. Ahead of International Men’s Day on November 19th they have written a joint blog to discuss some of the issues facing Mental Wellbeing for the Modern Banker.
Historical environment and Men’s role at work
RM: For me the historical role of Men in the workplace is a blocker in the modern world. The stoic no-nonsense approach has, up until very recently, withstood the test of time. Enter the male modern banker. It’s difficult in the early days of your career to be a disruptor or go with the flow and climb the ladder, silent bystanders have for a long time been too reluctant to speak up. I was however fortunate to start working in banking in 2016 and nearly all my line managers have been women. NatWest as an organisation take Diversity and Inclusion very seriously but like all large corporations there are legacy issues that take time to overcome. The historical behaviours not only negatively impact women in the workplace but also men themselves as it creates a reluctance to move away from that strong and quiet stereotype. Jake and I’s involvement in NatWest’s Allied Men employee led network contributes to tackling these stereotypes, championing gender equality, and addressing male mental health issues.
JH: Being in the branch network, I often hear “oh, the manager? You should be out playing golf in the afternoons and entertaining clients in your office!” or so this was the illusion to my older customers from back when retail units were thriving enterprises, often with 20+ staff, each completing every process from start to finish. I always remember that when I first joined the bank back in 2011, I could still very much see what the “male dominated roles” was historically and what were the “female roles”. Males were generally in business banking culture, and I can remember visiting the small centre they worked in just up the road – it resembled something that matched student accommodation, nothing like a professional place of work where business was conducted. Also, in branch, women were traditionally cashiering and completing day to day branch admin tasks. Skip forward to 2022 the bank is a very different place. The forward steps it has taken around diversity and inclusion is to be commended. The bank is open and honest about what needs to change and why, and with myself and Rory playing our small part by being members of the Allied Men’s Network, we feel empowered to challenge and breakdown barriers for gender equality, but also keep discussions relevant around male mental health and wellbeing, near the surface of our day to day lives.
Changes to how we operate
JH: When Covid hit, life in branch (like everywhere else) changed. At first, it was scary. Branch colleagues would come into branch, where at first, we would only be open for essential services between 10-1pm. HOWEVER, massive queues (like you’d see outside supermarkets) were common outside many branches, which often meant we didn’t shut until well after 2pm as we couldn’t turn people away. Also, the term “essential” banking services meant very different things to different people. For some, paying in £10 was essential in order to stop a direct debit for bouncing, but to others, this was not deemed as a necessity. During the height of the pandemic on one particular day, I can remember the branch registering 17 deaths of customers in one 3-hour period due to the virus, dealing with days like this became “the norm” but on top of that, we were also trying to deal with feeling safe in branch ourselves. We were trying to still provide a good service, but at the end of each day, we were all going home, stripping down at the front door, and washing our uniform, ready for the next day.
During this, time the bank really looked after us. On top of getting us PPE in a timely manner, the bank also made a gesture of a £5 lunch allowance, as well as paying for parking for those who did not want to use public transport.
Being a leader during this time was difficult. Managing my team, who all had their own fears, I was dreading each call I received, as it would be more than likely another track and trace “ping”, which meant one less pair of hands for the next 10 days, in an already fractious environment. I’d feel the need to be the first through the door and the last to leave, which took its toll. During this time, my wife and I had just welcomed our 2nd daughter and was towards the end of her maternity leave, but of course, she had nowhere to go and enjoy the last few months of this leave as everything was closed. My father had also had a stroke 6 months earlier and was still in recovery which took its toll.
Other than speaking to my wife, I kept it all “bottled up” during this time. I felt the need to be a leader, someone who’s strong and inspiring, but if truth be told i was feeling the effects just as much as everyone else.
Now we’re a few years down the line we are definitely seeing some days where we are back to pre-covid levels of customers. However, one thing that has changed, is that the customers who come into branch now are generally for more complex enquiries, and therefore more time consuming. This being said, staff are closer now, even more so than before, as we have been through something together. I’ve seen a difference in my staff who were home workers during the pandemic, as they have migrated back to branch on hybrid working. They are calmer and more relaxed, and people now take the time to not be in such a rush, but to stop, pause and listen to what people have to say. I feel that the bank got it right for the retail network over this period, and how many staff at other companies can say that?
RM: The change to regular home working caused by the Covid pandemic didn’t faze me at first. I was already used to home working once or twice a week and the lack of a commute to Gogarburn would save me time and money. I’d not long returned from a secondment to a local office and hadn’t yet settled back into the 3 or 4 day a week 90-minute commute to work so I was more than happy to work from home permanently for the time being. As the weeks rolled on, I even started to see the benefits to my work as the transactional relationship I had with my colleagues in India evaporated as it didn’t matter if you were a few miles along the road or halfway around the world when you’re all sat on Zoom. As the time progressed however it became clear that the lack of human contact was having an adverse effect on my mental wellbeing. You take for granted that quick hello to a former colleague you pass walking into the office and the walks down for a coffee with your manager. Fortunately, I’d already worked hard to develop a toolset to manage my mental wellbeing and I quickly set about trying to improve my homeworking situation by moving my desk out of the bedroom, making sure I went on regular walks, logging off on time etc. A few years on I’m now comfortable in a remote first operating rhythm but I’m aware that some colleagues aren’t as fortunate as me. It’s up to employers to ensure they deliver a flexible framework to now support their staff that don’t necessarily need to be in an office location but may want to be for their wellbeing.
Mental health support at work
RM: In early 2019 I wasn’t living a healthy life outside of work and the day-to-day stresses at work resulted in me needing to seek some support. Admitting something was wrong was difficult as I’d grown to accept that I was quite an anxious person and normalised feeling overwhelmed. This anxiety coupled with the stress of the unrelenting standards I set myself at work caused me to hit breaking point one morning. Within a few hours I’d been seen by my GP and was on the path for some support but with public health services the waiting times were long. I decided to contact NatWest Group’s Employee Assistance Programme and after two quick phone calls I was scheduled to start work immediately with a counsellor. This was the first of two occasions when I’ve used this service and I’ll forever be an advocate for utilising this service if your employer provides it and for seeking support from a counsellor in general. It’s funny how much just being open with someone can help you get things off your chest. There were things that I didn’t think were at all related to my low mood that very quickly surfaced in the company of a stranger happy to listen. These sessions along with other counselling I had outside of work have changed my life and I’m grateful to my employer for enabling that to happen.
JH: I feel being a Branch Manager is about managing people first and the branch second. Spotting signs of my team suffering mentally has become more and more frequent, especially since Covid. Firstly, getting the staff member to open up can be a challenge, so taking time away from the hustle and bustle of branch life and treating them to a coffee can work wonders. NatWest Group’s Employee Assistance Programme has worked wonders for my team. I’ve been able to suggest the service to my staff when they have struggled from issues s such as dark thoughts, coping with loss or a particular traumatising experience. Staff have been able to speak to someone very quickly, and on many occasions offered continuous sessions for 6 – 8 weeks after, which has been really supportive to both myself and my staff the improvement in my staff’s wellbeing has been great to watch.
JH: Male identity for me is something that is constantly evolving and changing, and at times, can also cause me personally great stress. Men in the past have always been portrayed as “hunter, gatherer, provider, protector” but who looks after this guy? In my spare time, I like to go to the football with my now elderly father, but being honest, conversation never goes past thoughts on the match, checking on the kids and the next game. I also think it’s the same with majority of men my age (38) we may post on social media about male suicide or mental health problems, but still when with mates having a drink, no one talks about the “big stuff”. This is something we need to change and being part of the Allied Men’s Network and writing this blog (my first) is my first step to opening up and saying, “its ok to need to help, it’s ok to struggle”.
RM: I mentioned earlier that the historical male identity can have a negative impact on men in the modern world. It’s difficult to know where you stand as your male role models at work were often moulded in a different time, despite their desire to change in the present. Coupled with the societal stigma around being a man the decision on how to behave as a man can be forced upon you. Hypermasculinity can be toxic both in the workplace and outside it but it’s often difficult to break through to people who have normalised this behaviour. I’ve benefited first hand at seeking support when I was suffering from poor mental health, but extreme male gender stereotypes make it difficult to be open about your emotions through the fear of being told to ‘man up’. The great work being done by various social movements is making a difference but there’s still work to be done. Movember released a study in October of 2019 around the perceptions of masculinity and it revealed that “45% of 18-34-year-olds have avoided talking about their problems because they don’t want to appear less of a man”. That’s an alarming statistic despite knowing how far we’ve come. Hopefully blogs like this can start to encourage conversations to allow us to overcome the blocker that is the historical view of male identity.
RM: I hope this blog helps some readers and encourages conversations on this subject. It’s been very therapeutic putting my thoughts into words and it’s also been very eye opening seeing how different things are between my back-office role and Jake’s front line role. International Men’s Day is getting more and more attention each year which is great but there’s still a lot more to be done. However, I feel we’re definitely on the right track.
JH: This is probably the first time in years I’ve put something down on paper talking about how I feel. Like Rory I’ve found this therapeutic and quite comforting. I believe that we have great programmes and support networks out there to help, we just need to break the stigma surrounding men asking for help. Looking back over previous years, I definitely could have benefitted from seeking support. Just think, if anything breaks in our day to day lives (Car, TV, Computer), it’s serviced and repaired. Let’s stop looking at it as a weakness, and instead embrace your next service…