Tackling presenteeism in the banking sector: the role of work-life integration

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Presenteeism is an issue facing businesses of all shapes and sizes up and down the UK.

The implications of this phenomenon are well known. Presenteeism has been referred to as the single biggest threat to UK workplace productivity by Robertson Cooper’s Professor Sir Cary Cooper. It poses a substantial risk to workers’ health and wellbeing, and can cost businesses a staggering ten times more than absenteeism.

In the light of such worrying findings what can organisations do to address the problem? The answer, as identified in a new study that the Bank Workers Charity conducted in partnership with leading organisational psychologists Robertson Cooper, is to introduce work-life integration.

Work-life integration advocates a move away from the traditional concept of work-life balance, and the belief that people need to be able to create and control clear boundaries between work and home in order to be happy and healthy in the long term. As opposed to seeing ‘work’ and ‘life’ as separate entities, work-life integration is predicated on the two domains being seen as complementary, with success in one aspect contributing to success in the other.

The paper, entitled ‘Making Flexible Working Work: Moving from Work-Life Balance to Integration’, identifies that there are clear benefits for both workers and businesses when flexible working practices are implemented to improve integration between work and personal lives. They have been associated with increased motivation, job satisfaction and employee engagement, improved staff retention, reduced absence, greater productivity and increased wellbeing – all of which ultimately improve the bottom line – creating more good days at work.

Making progress

The banking industry provides a good case study in how to make progress on an issue that many businesses continue to struggle with.  

A study of women in banking by the Institute of Leadership and Management from 2012 is a good starting point from which to understand the journey that has been travelled.  In this report banking was characterised as a macho culture, with a pervasive presenteeism problem, which in combination, created a toxic environment for women seeking to progress their careers. 

Almost three quarters of women (72 per cent) believed that the attitudes of senior male managers were a barrier to women progressing into senior roles. Women also saw the culture in their organisation (61 per cent) as a major issue halting progression to senior management levels. Rewarding attendance over output presented a major disincentive to working flexibly owing to the negative attitudes fostered towards those working remotely.

Employees not seen ‘at their desk’ were often side-lined, perceived by colleagues to be less effective, or even ‘skiving’

The report also found that employees not seen ‘at their desk’ were often side-lined, or perceived by colleagues to be less effective, or even ‘skiving’, illustrating the deep-rooted negative perceptions that needed challenging.  Again, this problem is seen to weigh most heavily on women, as their desire for flexibility, often motivated by family commitments, is compromised for the need to be present and show their face in the office.

Since then and possibly as a consequence of these findings, banks have moved sharply to tackle both disparities in gender opportunity and the flexible working gap. On the gender front many banks including HSBC, Barclays, Royal Bank of Scotland and Lloyds have signed up to a new voluntary charter aimed at getting more women into senior roles.

Lloyds has made good progress, meeting its goal in 2015 of having 29% of its senior roles held by women. A British Bankers Association report indicated that the number of women in senior roles had doubled in the last 5 years.  

Partly to facilitate this banks have made parallel efforts to introduce flexible working more effectively, a necessary step given that 50% of female employees in the sector wanted flexible working options compared to just 34% of male.

Promoting flexibility

In flexible working, the progress made by banks since the gloomy picture presented in 2012 is striking. Lloyds were founding members of the Agile Future forum and have used champions effectively and prominently to progress their flexible working agenda.

Success in the sector can be seen most vividly in the prevalence of banks represented in the annual “Top Employers for Working Families Awards” - banks have featured prominently in successive years since 2014 as finalists or winners. In 2016 Barclays, Santander and Lloyds were all included as exemplars and in previous years other banks initiatives were recognised. A good example is that of Barclays who won the embedded flexibility award in 2016 for a scheme bannered as the “Dynamic Working Campaign”.

Its goal is to encourage all employees to shape their own dynamic working pattern.

It set out to change mindsets around flexible working and create a more agile approach to work across the organisation. Tackling the issue on multiple levels it created “Dynamic Working Champions” to advice and mentor colleagues and managers, it set up a dedicated portal and community chat site, so employees could share stories and successes, and access case studies and other informative materials.

There were also clinics run by senior managers to support line managers around flexible working issues. Over time its goal is to encourage all employees to shape their own dynamic working pattern.

Wide cultural change

Another bank taking an innovative approach is Citibank, through its innovative platform ‘inControl’. One of the key features of inControl is that it allows managers to see how employees use their desk space, and also shows real-time cost-effectiveness of each desk. For instance, if a desk is only being used 50 per cent of the time, a flexible arrangement could reduce the cost of that desk.

According to a Future of Work report entitled ‘The Benefits of Flexible Working Arrangements’, Citibank has seen that senior managers are able to view the financial benefits of flexible working in such a tangible way, they often become catalysts for expanding flexibility throughout their department.

In the wake of the financial crisis banks have had to work hard to rebuild the morale and the confidence of staff and also their sense of pride in the organisation, in the face of widespread public hostility. The improvements around flexible working and the closing of the gender opportunity gap are part of a wider cultural change process that banks are engaged in both internally and externally, that is still in train. No one, including the banks themselves, would say that they have solved the problem; it is still a work in progress.

Like all large organisations, it can be hard for a bank to implement flexible working across an entire business, as some roles are more circumscribed in terms of the potential work patterns possible. But the sector is showing what progress can be made when there is a determination from the top to support the change and a strong appetite among the workforce to make it work.

About Paul Barrett

Paul Barrett, Bank Worker's Charity

Paul Barrett is the Head of Wellbeing for the Bank Workers Charity. An occupational psychologist with over 25 years’ experience in employee mental and physical health, he is an established commentator on wellbeing in the workplace, writing for the Work Foundation, CIPD, Good Day at Work, Fit For Work, Business Healthy and Wellbeing Pulse. Paul can be found on Twitter at @lcoridon.

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