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.”