COMMENT: The psychological support that stressed, isolated bankers need during the Covid-19 crisis
Banks and financial institutions in Hong Kong have largely done a good job implementing practical precautionary measures to help limit the spread of the coronavirus. Many finance professionals are working from home or across split sites, while their employers have been providing face masks and hand sanitisers.
But although these measures may deal adequately with the physical impact of the virus, managers also need to address the psychological effects of the outbreak on their team members.
The first step, if you manage people in banking (or any sector), is to understand why your employees might be feeling stressed, particularly if they work from home. As a Hong Kong-based psychologist, coach, and former HR professional at a large bank, I’ve come up with a list of possible reasons.
Uncertainty. The brain craves certainty and seeks to avoid uncertainty. But the coronavirus causes all kinds of uncertainty in people: will I be infected, is it safe to go out, how long will the current restrictions last?
Isolation. People working from home often experience a sense of isolation – and isolation enhances uncertainty. They may feel cut off from colleagues and support networks, and they may be holed up in a small apartment having to look after kids who aren’t in school. Moreover, the discussions they have at home can be ‘isolated’ in themselves (i.e. based mainly on internet rumours and text messages from other isolated people) and this can cause uncertainty and even anxiety. A fear of going out to meet friends and family may further enhance a sense of social isolation.
Lack of boundaries between work and personal life. These boundaries can disappear when working from home. Losing the natural rhythm of going to work and coming home, people may start working at all hours and may abandon clear start and stop times, especially in an industry as pressurised as banking.
Poor stress management skills. Although many financial institutions have wellness programmes (including advice on stress management), in my experience few people actually sign up to them unless they’re told to. Employees may therefore not fully understand the new emotions they’re experiencing during the virus outbreak, and they may not have a healthy outlet for fear and anxiety caused by uncertainty and isolation.
So what are some practical steps that managers in the Hong Kong banking sector can do to support their teams over the coming weeks?
Active listening. The most frequent question I get asked by leaders is whether they should change their style during these times. My immediate answer is ‘no’, but a qualified ‘no’. Acting out of character (e.g. making radical changes to your personality) may cause confusion among your employees, resulting in more stress. But you can tweak your behaviour. For example, I’ve trained hundreds of leaders, and I’ve found that most don’t listen effectively, if at all. They listen only with the intent to provide answers or refute arguments. Active listening is one of the best tools in your employee-support toolkit right now. This means actually showing that you’re listening – making eye contact and demonstrating through body language and responses that you’re focused on the other person.
During the virus outbreak people may talk to you about their fears. The best way to show that you’re listening is to paraphrase what the person has said in your own words – this makes them feel validated and ‘heard’. You could ask follow-up questions about what they’ve said, but don’t provide your own answers, judge their views or refute them. While you may not be able to fix people’s problems, you can show empathy for their experiences. For me, just talking about something that worries me provides a huge relief.
Regular team meetings. Even if they’re virtual, you should continue your team meetings – they can give employees a sense of connection. You should allow more time than usual for people to do small talk, share concerns and provide each other with social support. Also take the opportunity to motivate your team, and notice when people are acting out of character. Keeping these meetings on a regular schedule reduces uncertainty and provides employees with a sense of structure.
Create support networks. This is related to the previous point but moves the responsibility for creating interaction to employees. Support from co-workers can help people feel less isolated, and improve performance by ensuring open communication. There are many types of support networks but whatever options you use, try to ensure that nobody is left out, and that all of your team members are supported by others.
Clear communication. It’s especially important to give employees certainty about tasks, delivery dates and expected behaviour while working remotely. You also need to be clear on things such as response time to emails, and encourage people to maintain their routine. Being available when people have questions (and responding with patience and empathy) is even more important now. Telling people when you are reachable (and when not) could make a significant difference in combating uncertainty.
Give your staff some tips on managing uncertainty. There are many ways of doing this, but here are a few:
Encourage talking about emotions. This can be a tall order in many Asian cultures, and you need to be cautious about how you communicate it. I have heard clients say they don’t even discuss their emotions with their closest friends. However, the more people can talk about their concerns, the better it is for their mental health. If your firm has an employee assistance programme and/or counsellors, encourage people to take advantage.
Also let them know that stress is to be expected and encourage them to talk with friends about their feelings rather than suppress them.
Focus on what is not uncertain. Help employees focus on what is unchanged: they are still employed, they will get paid, and they still have family and friends etc. Shifting their attention to the positives in their lives can help reduce stress and anxiety.
Set clear boundaries between work and private life. For example, see if employees can set fixed working hours, lunch breaks, and a working place. This may be challenging when children are also at home in a small apartment, but it’s worth trying. Encourage employees to establish a daily routine and follow it – this will help create certainty in their lives. And discourage people from responding to emails at all hours of the day and night.
Take time off. It’s important that employees take proper breaks during the day, but also over the span of the week and the month. Weekends off, evenings off etc will help to reinforce boundaries and provide certainty.
Social interaction outside of the home. Encourage your employees to have frequent virtual interaction with people outside their homes (and in-person interaction if it complies with government regulations). This reduces feelings of isolation, may allow employees to get more objective news, and promotes mental stimulation.
Share tips and techniques. Work with your HR team to share advice on building and maintaining resilience. Short, practical tips generally work better. If you have tried the tip yourself, it may be impactful to share that fact. Web-based communication platforms provide a unique opportunity to have virtual meetings with large numbers of employees simultaneously – so be creative and ask your company’s wellness provider to deliver talks or bite-sized training sessions that employees can join voluntarily from home or at work.
Henry Chamberlain is a former group head of selection at Standard Chartered, who now works as a Hong Kong-based psychologist and executive coach.
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