Q&A with Coutts


Q&A with Coutts - 'It's a bank. But not like any other bank'

Interviewer and author: Jude Pearson - St John Ambulance

We all know this about Coutts. It’s not your typical high street bank. A bank whose only known customer has the prefix ‘HRH’ before her name is never going to be like any other.

The employee who gave me the title for this article wasn’t talking about it in that sense though. She’s worked at the bank for just four months and was speaking on a very human level. She came to Coutts with a background in organisations where mental health was simply not spoken about. From the ‘welcome day’ that all new Coutts employees attend to her experience at work since then, it’s abundantly clear that the health and wellbeing of the people who work at Coutts is of vital importance to the bank. She spoke of a culture of openness where feelings are as important as performance and the same level of detail and attention is put into looking after each other as they put into looking after their clients.

I was at Coutts, on London’s famous Strand, to meet Mike Heyworth. Mike and his colleague Miles Kean, both Executive Directors at the bank, are the driving force behind Coutts’ approach to wellbeing.

To say that Mike and Miles built something completely new to Coutts isn’t strictly true. Philanthropy has been at the heart of Coutts since, upon inheriting the bank in 1837, Angela Burdett-Coutts dedicated vast amounts of her wealth to supporting charities and improving the lives of the poor. As Mike said, “Miles and I weren’t doing anything that wasn’t already in the ethos of the bank.”

So what did Mike and Miles do for wellbeing at Coutts? Or, more to the point, where did they start? Mike told me how Miles and he came together to focus on mental health at Coutts. He started with Miles’ story:

“In going through the banking crash and subsequent financial crisis in 2008, Miles reached a breaking point where he wasn’t able to come into work. Everything that was going on in the financial world, the media reporting around the crisis and the sense of duty to his clients all built up into this increasing tension until the point when he had a breakdown. Miles took some time off work and attended The Priory, where he went through some recovery programmes.

“He was back at work just a month or two afterwards. It was too soon. The underlying issues that made Miles ill were still there and his time off work and treatment had just papered over the cracks. After a year or so, the tension built back up and Miles found he couldn’t work again. He was off for a longer period this time.

“On returning to work the second time Miles’ boss seemed to try and avoid the real issue, for fear of exposing Miles as someone who had been off with a Mental illness, but Miles was keen to express very clearly the background as he felt it was important to be really open about it.”

“It happened a third time. This time Miles was referred to a clinical anxiety specialist and was away from work for much longer. Finally, Miles had the diagnosis that was needed. As soon as it was understood that Miles had an anxiety disorder, he was able to put cognitive behaviour therapy in place and start to really understand the root cause of the illness. Miles was gradually able to make changes to the way in which he approaches his physical health, his mental health and his work to the point where he now manages his condition and isn’t in ‘that place’ anymore.

“On returning to work, Miles was getting two or three taps on his shoulder every month from colleagues who knew what he’d been through and wanted to talk about things that they were going through. They saw, in Miles, an empathetic ear; someone who they could talk to without judgement and who could give them some advice. Miles decided that he wanted to do something about it, not just for the people who were brave enough to tap him on the shoulder, but for anyone in the organisation who might be feeling some form of mental ill health. He wanted mental health to be something that everybody could talk about, with anyone.”

Miles was directed to the Diversity and Inclusion Council at the bank, which was where he met Mike, who through his own, entirely separate route had ended up at the same place.

“I’ve been a line manager at Coutts for many years and I’ve always been interested in wellbeing and mental health. Because of this, a colleague approached me to talk about his situation. He felt under constant pressure at work; he felt the threat of redundancy; targets were getting on top of him; he feared that every time he answered the phone, it’d be a client complaint; he felt the need to watch his blackberry all through the night in case an email needed answering; he hadn’t slept properly for days and was getting ratty with his children and his wife. On top of all this he couldn’t talk with his line manager for fear of being seen as weak. He was deeply concerned that he was heading for a breakdown.

“I gave him the best advice I could and pointed him towards his GP and cognitive behavioural therapy and over a period of months he was able to get back onto a level and he’s now recovered and able to manage his work and life.

“That was great, but my overriding thought was why can’t every line manager have that conversation? Why do people feel unable to talk about mental health with their manager? Why is it perceived as wrong or weak to talk about how you feel? Quite the opposite, a line manager is there to support. So that’s the culture I wanted to change. I wanted line managers to be enabled to have conversations with anybody, anywhere about mental health and wellbeing. That’s how I ended up at the Diversity and Inclusion Council, and how I met Miles.”

On resolving that they wanted to take this head on (pun intended), Miles and Mike needed to work out where to start. How do you put together an organisational wellbeing policy and drive the cultural changes that are needed?

“We spent several months researching. We approached charities and professional bodies; we talked with people from other banks and professional services firms; we spoke to all manner of experts to find out where to start. It became clear that we needed to approach this from multiple angles. There’s little point in just doing one thing. You can have the best employee assistance programme in the world, but nobody able to access it. You could have the best line manager training in the world, but it all falls down if people aren’t looking after their physical health. There’s no point having senior managers talking about mental health and wellbeing if it’s not happening at middle management level. Everything must be in harmony to make each single thing work. We spent a long time putting the jigsaw together and ended up with our Seven Silver Bullets.”

So, what are the ‘Seven Silver Bullets’? Mike directed me to some information he’d emailed over before we met:

  1. Authenticity

    Do your people believe you? Your programme has to be more than just a tick box exercise and you have to make tangible and practical changes rather than just lip service.

  2. Tone from the top

    It’s essential that a non-judgemental and open culture in your organisation is led by the people at the top.

  3. Establish an Ambassador Network

    Ambassadors are a ‘local beacon’ to promote mental health awareness and they make themselves available to anyone who wants to talk.

  4. Focus on Line Managers

    This is your critical population so enable them to talk about mental health and to listen.

  5. Establish a Wellbeing Hub or Communications Channel

    The last thing anyone in need of support wants is to have to search for help. Make it easy for everyone to find what they need.

  6. Personal disclosure

    Everyone has a story. When colleagues at all levels talk about their mental health story, it encourages others to open up about their own experiences.

  7. Driven by passionate people

    A wellbeing programme must be led by people who truly care about mental and physical health and wellbeing.

That’s great as a wellbeing framework, but how do you get buy in from the top? Mike explains:

“We realised quite quickly that, more than just approval from the Board we’d need some money to deliver the programme as planned. We were invited to an Executive Committee meeting and given a ten-minute slot to convince them.

“An executive coach that I was working with told me to make sure that we tell the Board our stories. Tell them what it’s like to go through mental ill health. Consider that one in four people experience mental ill health and one in six people are currently suffering from a form of mental ill health. We’ll be sat in a room with twelve members of the Bank’s Executive Committee. Statistically speaking, at least three of them will have experienced some kind of mental ill health; and at least two of them will be going through it as we speak.

“The meeting agenda went out of the window. We spent an hour and ten minutes with them and after we left the room, they spent another hour talking about it. Once we’d explained what we wanted to do, how we wanted to do it and why, the money just pales into insignificance. The multiple benefits of having an engaged workforce far outweighed the cost in getting there.

“It was now up to Miles and me to make things happen. We asked employees if they’d like to be a part of the ambassador network, expecting 20 people to sign up, and ended up with 95 ambassadors across the organisation, with more joining all the time. We filmed all Executive Committee members talking about their own mental health experiences. Everybody had a story to tell. We engaged with the This is Me campaign with Coutts employees recording their very personal journeys through mental ill health and recovery.

“Miles and I went to speak with over 500 line managers up and down the UK, directly delivering a training session with each of them about how to have conversations about mental health, what to do after a conversation and how to look after their own mental health.

“We recognised that wellbeing covers physical health as well as mental health so we invested in physical health checks for all employees who wanted them and health monitor body scanning machines for our workplaces that people could use any time.”

This all sounds very positive but it wasn’t all plain sailing. There were a few challenges, as Mike explains:

“In the target driven banking world, overcoming the stigma around mental health and letting people know that it’s okay to be mentally ill took some time. If you come into work with a broken leg, your employer has a responsibility to make reasonable adjustments to your workplace to allow you to recover and do your job. Equally, if you come to work having become mentally unwell, your employer has the same duty of care. The challenge was putting mental and physical health on an equal footing.

“The ‘tone from the top’, including the support from our parent company, Royal Bank of Scotland and its wellbeing team, has been so important in driving the change in attitudes and giving an authentic voice to the programme. Equally as important was pushing the link between physical and mental wellbeing. The voluntary physical health checks and body monitors were a great way of doing this and allowed us to open the conversation about mental wellbeing. It was key to the cultural step change at Coutts.”

The fear of getting it wrong was something else that Miles and Mike had to tackle. What’s the danger of giving someone with mental ill health the wrong advice? How did they get past this?

“Our HR department was initially keen that our Mental Health Ambassadors should be fully trained with some type of professional accreditation programme. Miles and I deliberately didn’t want to gold-plate the Ambassador Network as there’s a real benefit of offering peer support. Our Ambassadors have their own jobs to do and are simply there for a friendly chat when it’s needed. They don’t advise on treatment. They’re there to signpost the full range of help available, whether it’s simply listening and talking, providing hints and tips that have helped others, directing them to their GP, to counselling via the employee assistance programme or, when needed, to phone the emergency services.”


The third challenge is what Mike calls ‘Mental Health Fatigue’. Once everything was going with the wellbeing programme, and people are engaging with the support structures, the trick is finding ways to keep the momentum going.

“After a while, people can get a bit bored of endless mental health initiatives. It can almost be like, ‘Okay, we’ve sorted mental health so now let’s talk about something else important. Our question is how we make sure that we’re linking everybody back in so that wellbeing isn’t just a fad, or a ticked box that’s quickly forgotten.

“We have big ‘rocks’ in everybody’s diaries. ‘Great Place to Work Week’, an annual Royal Bank of Scotland wide initiative, involves daily activities for employees to take part in with a focus on wellbeing. During both Mental Health Awareness Week in May and on World Mental Health Day in October, we take over the Bank’s internal communications with wellbeing initiatives, and encourage everyone to wear green, a colour that’s known to promote emotional calm.

“In this May’s Mental Health Awareness week, we’re providing healthy breakfasts for everybody and getting everyone in the company to take part in stretching exercises in the lobby at the start of the day. We’re doing panel interviews with employees who’ve had mental ill health and focus on their recovery story and the Bank’s role in that. We’re focussing on the financial support that we’ve given to employees alongside the ambassadorial support.

“Over time, you start to embed wellbeing and it becomes more self-supportive. Coutts has a nominated charity that employees do things like run marathons for and it rotates every year. We’ve supported children’s charities and homeless charities. This year, and for the next two years, the employees voted overwhelmingly to support a couple of mental health charities so the topic of mental health will be even more prevalent.”

It’s clear that Mike, Miles and the team around them have put in a lot of work to make positive changes at Coutts. How do they feel about their achievements?

“There are quantitative measures of success and these matter a lot to us. Twice every year a survey asks all employees to anonymously rate Coutts as an employer that supports their mental health and wellbeing. At the beginning of the wellbeing programme, 60% of people felt that they were supported and that went up to 84% in just six months.

“More important than any numbers or statistics though are the times when people have told us that thanks to the support that was provided to them and the programmes that were put in place, they’ve recovered from thoughts of taking their own lives. We’ve had two people this year who’ve told us that they were considering suicide before support was provided and no doubt more who haven’t told us directly. If what we’ve done at Coutts has saved lives, then that’ll do! What better measure of success is there?”

That felt like a good place to draw our conversation to a close. I just wondered what advice Mike has for people who want to get something started in their organisations.

 “You have to have people who really want to make a difference. Without people who are passionate about wellbeing and mental health then it’s just a part of their job. It shouldn’t start with HR by default, it should start with anyone who genuinely cares. Once you have that, you can follow the framework and see what works for your organisation and your people.”

About the contributors

Mike Heyworth - View LinkedIn

Mike is an Executive Director and the Head of Client Delivery at Coutts. Prior to joining Coutts in 2012, Mike worked in various roles, spanning Private Banking, Structured Products and Business Development. He holds a degree in Economics and an MBA from London Business School. Mike co-heads the Wellbeing Agenda at Coutts, an ambitious drive to increase the wellbeing of all staff across Coutts and Adam & Co banks.


Miles Kean - View LinkedIn

Miles is an Executive Director in the Entrepreneurs Division. He joined Coutts in 2001, following 10 years at Lloyds Private Banking. Miles looks after clients from both an investment and debt perspective and has led a number of teams over the years before focussing on regulated lending to High Net Worth clients. Miles is a member of the Diversity and Inclusion Council, heading up wellbeing, and is also involved in several wider projects and initiatives at the Bank.

Coutts       Twitter: @Couttsandco        Facebook: Coutts            LinkedIn: Coutts

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