Does more attention need to be put on mental health within FinTech?

From: FinTech Global

Monzo’s co-founder’s exit has prompted the FinTech industry to take a hard look at how it protects the mental health of its staff.

In January, Monzo co-founder Tom Blomfield announced he would leave the company citing concerns of his mental wellbeing as one of the reasons.

Speaking with TechCrunch, he explained that he had been experiencing a tough time at the company and no longer enjoyed the work as much as he used to. He preferred working at a smaller company rather than the banking giant Monzo had become. The pandemic only made things worse.

“I think [for] a lot of people in the world… going through a pandemic, going through lockdown and the isolation involved in that has an impact on people’s mental health,” Blomfield said. “I don’t think I was any different, so I was really struggling. I had a really, really supportive exec team around me and a really supportive set of investors on board and I was really grateful that when I put my hand up and said, ‘I need help,’ they were super receptive to that.”

He’s not the only one feeling the pressure. Despite how much work is done to promote positive mental health and be open around such things, more attention is still needed.

Work can create a lot of stress for anyone in a business. Stress affects regular employee struggling with their workload and the top leadership team worrying about meeting targets. Stress is a difficult thing to get a handle on and we will all have our own tried and tested methods to cope.

However, the Covid-19 pandemic has made things even tougher. A common way to wind down after a long day of work was to socialise with friends or maybe catch a movie. In a lot of countries, this is just not possible at the moment as people are forced to stay in-doors and have minimal contact with those in other households.

The inability to use old methods of letting off steam has wreaked havoc on people’s mental health. Under a third of people in the UK feel like they are managing to cope well with stress during the pandemic, according to research from the Mental Health Foundation.

The pandemic is undoubtedly putting a range of extra strains on people’s lives and more attention should be brought to helping people improve their mental wellbeing. With the Monzo co-founder publicly talking about his struggles, the FinTech industry has been reminded of just how important this is.

“When Tom Blomfield, the founder of the much lauded neobank Monzo, announced that he was stepping down, he did something that was considered unprecedented in the tech world,” says Charles Delingpole, CEO at ComplyAdvantage.

“He publicly announced that his departure was due to his own personal struggles with mental health. This very public admission sent shock waves throughout the tech sector and particularly throughout the FinTech community. And for that, Mr. Blomfield should be recognised as a hero.”

While the pandemic has exacerbated issues with mental health, it is clear that leading any venture was already stressful. Worryingly, four in five small business owners report one experiencing common symptoms of poor mental health at least a few times a year, according to research from small business lender iwoca. Most common is an inability to focus, with 66% of respondents regularly experiencing this. Other worries include anxiety (64%) and disrupted sleep (63%), depression (37%) and panic attacks (27%).There is no shortage of statistics showing the alarming extent of mental health issues in the workplace, highlighting the need for more action in the workplace.

“While the social narrative around mental health has evolved greatly in recent years, its counterpart in the workplace has not seen the same progress,” says Alyson Watson, CEO and founder of Modern Health. “It’s still considered taboo in many workplaces to mention an appointment with a therapist, or anxiety about an upcoming project. And yet, people’s jobs are often the root cause of many clinical and subclinical mental health issues they face – meaning that the two are tied together inextricably.”

People working at technology companies are seemingly very susceptible to mental health issues. The technology industry professionals are five-times more likely to be depressed than the general UK population, according to a study from BIMA. Finance is also a notoriously stressful world, so people working at FinTech companies are undoubtedly at high risk.

“This should be no surprise when you consider the competitive pressure put on tech employees to work long hours in order to bring their products to market,” says Delingpole. “Now imagine compounding this pressure with the intense demands of working in a highly regulated industry responsible for the world’s financial supply chains and that pretty much sums up working in FinTech.”

There is a strong culture in the FinTech world of putting everything into the business and working long hours, but this can have big negative ramifications. FinTech is the perfect place for mental health issues to fester and take form, according to Chi-Chi Obuaya, Clinical Lead at The Soke. “It is staffed by talented and ambitious people, who are highly motivated and career-driven,” he says. “A competitive and stressful environment creates the perfect conditions for overwork and thus professional burnout. This has the potential to put people at risk of developing a range of mental health difficulties, including mood, anxiety and sleep disorders.”

This is only intensified by the pandemic as employees feel obligated to outperform colleagues and work longer hours. “The boundaries between work and home life have already been significantly eroded and those who may live alone or be denied access to leisure activities may be tempted to spend longer working in what would otherwise have been their downtime,” adds Obuaya.

Working from home has made it hard to separate work life from home life. Boundaries are now blurred and it is easy for people to work prolonged hours simply by getting caught up with work. The inability to disconnect from work has the ability to impact a person’s wellbeing. Businesses have some legal requirements around mental health at the workplace, such as conducting risk assessments and ensuring people are not discriminated against.

The International Organization for Standardization is currently working on a new international standard which will offer guidance on managing psychological health in the workplace. However, should more be done?

Dellingpole believes so. He argues that if FinTech hopes to continue creating new opportunities for business growth, the industry needs to assess how the intensity of work impacts the long-term productivity of FinTech professionals.

“Protecting the mental health of FinTech employees should no longer be considered an afterthought,” he adds, “You wouldn’t bank on the performance of a racing car without being conscious of the constant maintenance requirements of the engine, nor should you bank on the performance of your FinTech team members without regular check-ins on their mental health. It’s not only common sense, it’s the key to optimal performance.”

Ensuring the wellbeing of staff should be a top priority for companies. There are also economic benefits a firm can achieve from having happier and healthier staff.

“There are ethical and economic reasons to focus on mental health,” suggests Kelly Hearn, psychotherapist and co-founder of Examined Life. “As work is the source of so much employee stress, work – and management specifically – needs to be part of the solution. Mental health issues are also a huge cost to businesses. Supporting mental wellbeing is the human thing to do, and it also improves the health of the business. This is all the more important during the pandemic as isolation and disconnection coupled with health and financial worries have led to increasing levels of depression and anxiety.”

Things to help improve employee mental wellbeing

There is no one simple way of improving mental health. However, there are a number of things employers can do to ensure their employees are supported and measures are in place to factor for difficulties staff may face.

As mentioned, the work-life balance has been a major challenge during the pandemic. This is one of the main areas businesses should be addressing to ensure their staff are happy and shutting off from work at the end of the day to relax and recover.

“It is not the responsibility of the employer to know what every employee does in their spare time, but both the duty of care to employees and their moral obligation to their employees should generate a curiosity about how they are coping at a challenging time and what strategies they have to manage stress,” says Obuaya.

This includes encouraging employees to have a sensible schedule where they focus on productivity rather than presenteeism. Employees should also be using annual leave or deferring it for later use, and be taking breaks during the day to take walks, meditation or walking.

These methods of coping were echoed by a lot of people contributing to the article. Specifically, working parents were considered to be quite at risk of burning out. Having to balance their time between working, looking after children and relaxing is tough to manage and can be stressful. To ensure they can cope employers should encourage and communicate with these working parents to create a work-home synergy that suits their needs.

“For parents, taking the initiative to open up an honest and open dialogue with their employer, one where they share their true reality, could help create a flexible working package for them that reduces daily stress and anxiety,” says Mark Armour, director of corporate health at Vita Health Group.

“Ultimately, this will make employees more productive throughout whatever working day can be realistically achieved, remove this ongoing issue of presenteeism and ultimately ensure employees don’t burn out.”

One thing that is important is that firms keep mental health support available at all times and while the pandemic might have put the spotlight on mental health, once the world opens back up, the health issues will not simply disappear.

Another key piece of advice many contributors offered was the sense of building mental health awareness as a core part of the business. This includes having psycho-education events, not stigmatising the topic of mental health, training managers to spot signs of people struggling, having trained experts at lunch and learns, and more.

There are so many different ways a firm can support healthy habits for their employees. Some of the other suggestions provided include face-to-face coffee breaks, socially distanced catch ups, frequent team calls, regular meditation, do the mandatory physical exercise, seek mental health support if needed, turning off work phones after allotted hours, prioritising workloads, improving communication with employees about wellbeing and many more.

“At the end of the day, your most important assets are your employees,” says Dellingpole. “Their wellbeing should be your top priority because without them, you don’t have a business. When it comes to fostering good mental health in the workplace, it starts at the top. Be open and proactive in discussing the importance of mental health and encourage your employees to do the same.  If you remove the stigma then you have the ability to create a high-performance work environment where everyone benefits.”

It is not just the employees that should be aware of their mental health. Founders and senior management are just as much at risk at suffering from stress and difficulties while at work. “Focus on the journey and not the destination,” says Watson.

When building a company it can be easy to get lost in the excitement of passing milestones. Whether that is raising the first external capital, launching the platform, hitting a certain number of clients, reaching profit and many more. Once reaching one of these milestones, it is ok to sit back and enjoy the moment.

“It’s important to take a step back and really be proud of the achievements you’ve made and to focus on the journey versus the destination,” Watson continues. Chasing milestones is good and it helps with motivation, but chasing the destination stops the founder appreciating how far they have come and what their hard work has done.

“You look at so many successful founders out there who have made billions of dollars who are alone and depressed and not happy,” Watson argues. “It reminds me every day when I wake up and when I jump out of bed excited for work that it’s about what I’m doing every day and yes reaching these milestones are super exciting and proud moments but it’s way more exciting to be working alongside the people I work alongside and getting to problem solve with them and lead with them and getting to be inspired by such amazing people that I work with.”

There is a lot of work needing to be done to encourage positive mental health within FinTech and there are many different ways a firm can do it. As mentioned, work is being done in the workplace to help support people’s mental health. FinTech startup Pollinate has taken a number of steps to care for their team.

“It has been important for me to make sure that the Pollinate team knows they shouldn’t feel uncomfortable or embarrassed if they have a noisy child in the background of a call or if they need to jump off a meeting to deal with an issue at home,” says Fiona Roach Canning, co-founder and chief product and marketing officer at Pollinate, arguing that employees are never ignored their free time and are able to take breaks whenever needed. This also includes encouraging them to take holidays during the summer to mimic normality.

“At the end of the day, we are all human and we’re all dealing with the same problems that come from working at home so we need to be understanding and empathetic towards each other,” she concludes.

Copyright © 2021 FinTech Global

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