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Paul Barrett

Bank Workers Charity

Head of Wellbeing

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Mindfulness: Motivating a workforce under pressure with employee-led wellbeing

How one organisation’s employee-led wellbeing initiative sparked a cultural revolution.

In the UK workplace, employee-led wellbeing initiatives are rare, and successful ones even more so. Three years ago I wrote this piece for HRZone about an outstanding example of a bottom-up wellbeing approach that emerged at HSBC bank. This was a mindfulness employee network that grew from small beginnings in Sheffield in 2012, to become a bank-wide community.

When I wrote the piece in 2017, the network was growing apace and the idea of going global was being voiced. Membership by then had reached 2000 employees and the bank was the recipient of an award from the All Party Parliamentary Group on Mindfulness, in recognition of its achievements. At that point HSBC chose to back the network with funding. That meant it could train up a cohort of internal practitioners (mindfulness champions) who could set up local mindfulness communities. This was a key development, as it meant that in future the bank wouldn’t be reliant on external consultants to keep the network thriving. It was the first step to sustainability.  

When employees are fully engaged with a wellbeing programme, it can not only survive but thrive in a way that top-down initiatives rarely do. 

Back in 2017 mindfulness was becoming an increasingly visible feature of the workplace wellbeing landscape. This was a time when UK businesses were prioritising employee wellbeing like never before and mindfulness sat snugly within emerging wellbeing strategies.

The arrival of Covid-19 has given both wellbeing and mindfulness a further shot in the arm. Businesses concerned about the negative impact of the pandemic on the wellbeing, and in particular, on the mental health of a predominantly home-based workforce, have reconfigured their wellbeing offers to focus on digital delivery. That has meant exploring ways of enabling employees to look after their wellbeing when working remotely. Mindfulness fitted the bill perfectly.

Mindfulness has proven benefits in supporting good mental health and is easy to deliver through digital channels. Indeed, meditation sessions offered by employers over Zoom and other platforms became commonplace during the successive lockdowns, and with remote employees having a little more discretion in how they organise their working day, such sessions were more easily accommodated.

In the light of these developments I was curious to see, three years down the line, and with the nation still in the grip of the pandemic, whether the HSBC network had continued to flourish, or whether enthusiasm for the project had waned. Might the network have run its course, as other emerging wellbeing priorities, like financial wellbeing, gained currency? Or perhaps the bank had shifted its focus towards some of the myriad other business priorities large corporations need to address.

An increased demand for wellbeing support

I reconnected with Mari Thorman, an IT architect who has championed the initiative from the outset, to learn how things had played out. She quickly disabused me of any notion that the project had run out of steam. In fact, it was quite the reverse – it’s continued to gain momentum at such a pace that she and her co-lead Denise Pullum have been seconded full-time to manage the development of the network into a full programme.

An important recent milestone is the inclusion of the HSBC network as a best practice case study in a new whitepaper on mindfulness in the financial sector. Since we last spoke, a six-week mindfulness foundation course has been introduced to give employees a grounding in good practice and to date over a thousand employees have attended. Meanwhile, the cohort of mindfulness champions, now numbering 80, have been busy delivering mindfulness sessions across the bank. At the time of writing, more than 10,000 employees have participated in events run by the champions.

Wisely, HSBC made the incorporation of cost benefit research a central pillar of the programme, enabling the bank to calculate its worth to the business. This is so often the missing ingredient in wellbeing initiatives, which all too often fail to measure impact and value. They did this firstly by tracking the activity of each mindfulness champion, as they ran sessions locally. This enabled them to estimate the amount it would have cost to deliver the champions’ sessions, had they been offered by an external provider. Among the benefits of completing the foundation course, they were able to identify a 30% reduction in participants’ perceived stress levels. This data has proved critical in getting buy-in from the bank’s senior leaders.

I was especially interested to understand how the pandemic had affected the development of the programme, and it’s clear that it has given it a real boost. Shortly after Covid-19 struck, the next round of recruitment for the foundation course took place. With many experiencing concern about the psychological impact of the pandemic, demand massively outstripped the number of places available, with 500 applicants for just 80 slots. Conscious of the difficult circumstances faced by many employees, Mari and the champions ramped up delivery, running ten courses in parallel, to allow all 500 applicants to participate and proving in the process the scalability of the champions model

Securing buy-in from the top

Asked about factors that have contributed to the network’s success, Mari was clear that support from key decision makers has been vital. Recognising this, a shortened version of the foundation training was made available to senior executives, with dedicated content relevant to those in leadership roles. This was very well received and will form an ongoing part of the initiative.  

Particularly significant was gaining the backing of John Hinshaw, HSBC’s global chief operating officer, who was delighted with the role the champions have played during the Covid-19 outbreak. “I am heartened HSBC was able to respond so quickly to the Covid-19 pandemic by scaling and mobilising the mindfulness programme begun by our employees. Ensuring everyone is able to be at their best, at home and at work, is a key part of our ambition to build a bank fit for the future. HSBC’s mindfulness practise clearly supports our colleagues wellbeing by enabling crucial skills such as resilience and creativity,” he said.

A cultural shift

Significant progress has also been made in extending mindfulness internationally. Remote weekly sessions are now offered across all time zones, to allow employees to participate, wherever they’re located within the bank’s global operations. The next leap forward has just occurred, with the formation of a steering group of the chief operating officers from each of HSBC’s regions worldwide, to explore how mindfulness communities can be can be established within their areas.  

HSBC’s story shows that when employees are fully engaged with a wellbeing programme, it can not only survive but thrive in a way that top-down initiatives rarely do. What HSBC have done is egalitarian, making mindfulness accessible to anyone with an interest and it demonstrates that it is possible to develop a business-wide programme without incurring huge costs. The fact that the network is still growing and developing after so many years is a lesson to other businesses in how to create wellbeing programmes that embed within the culture of the organisation.

That cultural dimension is reflected in a subtle change of language. Increasingly the membership is being referred to as a community rather than a network, capturing the essential social and support aspects of the programme. It will be fascinating to review its progress in another three years.

Interested in this topic? Read The psychological pandemic: an opportunity for employers to aid recovery.

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Paul Barrett

Head of Wellbeing

Read more from Paul Barrett

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