The financial services sector has always had a reputation for being a highly pressurised and stressful working environment.
Recently, the Bank Workers Charity found that 60% of bankers suffer from poor sleep quality and job-related stress. 50% of long-term absence in non-manual work is reportedly due to stress, and recently there have been some very public examples of extremely senior executives taking months off—or even quitting—due to exhaustion and stress, affecting multiple organisations in the banking and insurance world.
I’m a working mother and commuter, and there are definitely days when I recognise feeling a bit stressed; sometimes just from additional tasks like juggling child care arrangements for the long school holidays.
But just how stressed am I, and what—if anything—can I do about it?
Willis recently ran a seminar with consultancy firm Fit for Leadership for women in the financial services sector. We wanted to see how science, technology and psychology could help us achieve resilience in the work of business. It was called ‘Building Business Athletes’, taking inspiration from the world of sport.
An Athlete’s Support Team
Amongst the speakers was former rower Dr. Cath Bishop, a double World Champion and Olympic Silver medallist, and now a diplomat specialising in conflict stabilisation. Her inspirational contribution drew parallels between the personal motivation required for sporting success, and the goals and motivation we need for business success. She focused on the importance of communication, feedback and persistence to develop mental fitness and resilience. A key observation she made was that during a sports career of 10 years, when she was competing she had numerous people to provide her with support—coaches, physiotherapists and nutritionists—to ensure she could perform at her peak for a race which lasted just a matter of minutes.
She contrasted this with business leaders who are expected to consistently deliver peak performance, for a minimum of 35 hours every week, over a 40-year career, with very little support and limited rest and recovery periods. Her experience as an Olympian had taught her to “train smarter” by developing collaborative and positive relationships with key stakeholders. She discussed the importance of developing emotional, mental and physical resilience, learning from set-backs, and turning mistakes into opportunities to perform better, whilst emphasising health as a key determinant of success.
As businesswomen, we initially considered the sporting world and the finance world to be vastly different, but Cath demonstrated many parallels which can support our personal success.
Tech Sensors Gauge Your Stress
Another speaker, Simon Shepard of Optima Life, works with high-profile sports athletes who use technology, such as heart rate sensors, to help understand their reactions to different types of stress scenarios. He wanted to demonstrate how this technology could also be used to help business executives understand how we really cope with our day-to-day schedules. When he offered me the chance to get wired up to one of their monitors, I could hardly say no!
My assessment covered a 72-hour period during the normal working week:
- the usual daily commute (a three-hour round trip)
- a weekly exercise session
- a business dinner
- an all-day strategy meeting
- the usual office routine.
Data on my heart rate was recorded against all my daily activities through a detailed diary, then one of Optima’s experts fed back a detailed report on my performance from the data they had collected. I was keen to get a different perspective of what I coped with well, and what really did create stress in my life.
Getting Adequate “Recovery” Time
Surprisingly, generally my stress reactions were slightly lower during the day than in the evening. Was it a coincidence that as I got tired in the evenings, my stress levels were higher? It’s obvious that sleep is critical to enable us to cope with the stresses of our busy lives, however, it is not just the amount but the quality of “recovery” that is key.
Although I was going to bed roughly around the same time each night, the data showed that over the three nights, my percentage of recovery during sleep ranged from 73% down to only 35%. One night it took until nearly 3am to get into a sleep state where I was actually in ‘recovery mode’, even though I thought I was asleep.
The stress charts also showed a peak each night just before bedtime, when I rush around the house getting organised for the next day. So even on nights where I was not out late, this was clearly contributing to how long it took me to get into a deep recovery sleep.
Apparently there’s evidence that an hour of relaxation before bed, including no screen stimulants (e.g. TV, iPad or Blackberry), exponentially speeds up reaching recovery mode when asleep. Charging around the kitchen making packed lunches and loading the dishwasher apparently doesn’t count.
We all know that eating late or drinking heavily doesn’t help either, but I was pleased to hear that lots of people find of a glass of red wine genuinely contributes positively to relaxing—in moderation of course.
However, on a more positive note, the data also showed that I was getting some short bouts of strong recovery during the day. For example, when I was feeling particularly confident and ‘in the zone’ with a task, or when I was taking a short break like a quick walk round the block at lunchtime. I was getting noticeable recovery even just for 10 minutes as a result of these walks, which helps counterbalance any lower recovery time overnight.
Post-exercise, my stress levels also dropped and recovery during sleep was also better—even though I don’t do sufficient exercise to significantly improve my fitness levels.
There is a lot that we can’t change in our daily lives, but the learning experience for me was really positive, and in the spirit of personal development I’ve committed to tweaking my daily schedule with a few easy wins.
Easy Tips to Help Counter Stress
- Relax before bedtime—without a TV or smartphone—to maximise recovery during sleep
- Do more regular cardio exercise. Running for the train does not count
- A daily 10-minute walk at lunchtime will always pay dividends
- Feel positive about the things you do well
- Enjoy small treats without feeling guilt
Stress is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does necessitate us finding ways of ensuring sufficient recovery in order to achieve personal and business success. Maximising the “people resilience” of organisations, particularly in an industry such as the financial services, which is under the constant pressure of intense regulation, scrutiny and change, is critical to our collective success.