we talk to Richard Bidder about his work for occupational psychology consultancy Catalyst; and Christopher Hunt tells us about volunteering in Sri Lanka

From the trading floor to the training room

Ian Florance meets Richard Bidder 

I met Richard Bidder in the offices of Catalyst Consulting in the Strand, London. I first interviewed him around four years ago when he worked in John Mahoney-Phillips’ Human Capital Performance and Metrics team at UBS bank. At the time Richard was the team’s global assessment specialist, dealing with 65,000 staff members and maybe a million applicants a year. He was hugely enthusiastic about Fast Forward, an intensive piece of job analysis exploring what made a truly excellent (‘not just a good’) customer adviser.

Richard got back in touch a short while ago to tell me he’s now working for a specialist consultancy addressing human issues in financial markets. Follow-up studies are critical in the social sciences so I thought I’d apply the technique to our ‘Careers’ pages and see what happened in the next episode of his life. So, I ask, how did your Fast Forward project develop?

Cyprus may have been the wrong holiday destination
‘It was a fascinating experience. I travelled round the world looking at what it was that made the best financial advisers. People skills – client care and embedding relationships – are critical. This led to a performance model which was applied globally. Of course there are cultural differences about how that model is applied in different countries – whether cold calling is acceptable, the use of business cards, details like that.’

Psychologists who work with technical experts from other disciplines often experience difficulties being taken seriously. ‘Yes, it was a struggle to get buy-in from busy and target-driven financial managers. For instance, structured interviews are an increasingly effective way of making recruitment decisions, but managers are sometimes reluctant to relinquish their “gut feelings” and use detailed, focused questioning, even in the face of very robust evidence and arguments. Any psychologist working  in a specialist area must learn how to use different sorts of language, frame arguments, know when to stand their ground. These are core general skills that training should give psychologists.’

You were obviously enjoying your work; why did you move? ‘I was made redundant. That’s part of working life nowadays. Some people get made redundant three, four or more times during their career, and it affects different people in different ways. I banked the positives of what I’d done so far and went on holiday with my family. The finance sector was contracting in the UK – hence my new freer status! – and we went to Cyprus, which was in the middle of an even worse banking crisis. Maybe not the best place to get away from it all! Anyway, the first couple of weeks were problematic, but I‘m a family man and that focuses the mind wonderfully.

‘I felt I had three options. I’d worked for four banks already so the obvious thing to do was join another one; I could have moved into another sector; or I had the chance to joining Catalyst, which meant a move into consultancy.’

Upping the speed, agility and intensity
It’s almost a classic career change for an occupational psychologist to move in one direction or another between an employed position and a consultancy job. Indeed many other types of psychologists also run employed and self-employed career strands in parallel. What does Richard see as the difference between the two sorts of working? ‘Well, Catalyst employs around 50 people, so you feel you can really make a difference. Everything you do has the potential to affect your business in a profound way. Having worked in banking for so long I had to let the bank go and think of myself as a consultant. This meant upping speed, agility and intensity. I was used to committees and annual budgets, of being the expert who proposed initiatives because they were technically good. Now my success impacts directly on the company as a whole. I have to build much longer-term relationships with clients, to think about how one project links to another. You really have to work to understand the culture and guts of a client’s business, something you take for granted as an employee. In a sense I’ve had to move into more strategic thinking.’

What about the culture of Catalyst – is it different from what you were used to? ‘There is far more sharing of ideas within Catalyst. We’re all experts in different areas, and everybody mucks in to come up with a solution that fits a client. There’s also less hierarchy to cope with. And you notice problems more quickly – if there’s an issue in the business, whether it’s in your own area or not, you hear about it quickly and you have to be part of the response  team reacting to it and solving it quickly. Fundamentally you have to collaborate if you’re a smallish business. If you don’t, you won’t survive.’

I asked Richard what sorts of issues Catalyst is addressing. ‘I’m doing a lot of work in the technology field. I’m currently designing career paths and running training for high-performing technologists in both London and Hong Kong. Core to their development is the need to broaden their skill-sets as well as keeping up to speed with rapid changes in technologies. Catalyst are good at diversity and inclusion. The issue of women in the finance sector, particularly the lack of women at executive director level, is one we’re particularly concerned with.’

I was interested in reading on Richard’s website CV that he is an England and Wales Cricket Board Level II coach. Many of the techniques and concepts of sports psychology and coaching increasingly influence the use of psychology in business. Has this influenced Richard’s work? ‘Yes. I’ve been a cricket player for 28 years. I became a coach and helped set up a cricket youth club in 2000. We now have three junior teams. I loved coaching cricket, though I’ve given it up now – and it gave me my light bulb moment. I got so fascinated with the human issues of coaching that it may have started me on the road to working in HR then studying psychology. Sports experience and thinking can help with developing teams. I do think you can go too far with sports metaphors though. Some don’t apply beyond a very superficial level and, lest we forget, not everyone is interested in sport!’

When we talked before, Richard had stressed that his earlier experience on the trading floor helped him hugely in his HR and occupational psychology roles. ‘I’m absolutely convinced of that. In my view, if you want to be an occupational psychologist you should get some experience of working at other jobs in different types of organisation. The experience complements your theory.’ Given his earlier comments about the difficulty of winning other experts over, does he present himself as a psychologist in his work? ‘I’m hugely proud of being a psychologist and that’s what it says under “Profession” in my passport. I work with students at the University of East London. At any one time I might be working on 20 projects which meet my CPD needs and I use The Psychologist and online media to keep up to date with developments. But I’d like to do more.’

Outside the heavens have opened and people are sheltering from the monsoon-strength rain in shop and office entrances. As I stand there waiting for a chance to run across the road it strikes me again that generalisable work skills – from communication to learning –  are as important for psychologists as subject knowledge and clinical mastery. Careers and jobs never stop changing nowadays, and these skills help established and fledgling psychologists adapt.


A wish and a fear – mental health in Sri Lanka 

Christopher Hunt with insights and observations from his time as a volunteer

I will never forget the man with the flute, nor will I forget underestimating him.

In July 2013 I sat on the edge of a bed in a Sri Lankan special needs centre, equipped with an armoury of paper, crayons and jigsaws. A disabled gentleman lay next to me and, in my naivety, I asked if he would like to draw some pictures. The man proceeded to create a full sketch of an aeroplane, complete with technical labels and terminology. He went on to tell me about his past; how he used to be a pilot before an accident had removed the use of his legs. Afterwards, he pulled a flute from the nearby cabinet and played a melody that demonstrated both grace and skill.I sat on that bed feeling bewildered and bemused. How could I have gotten things so wrong?    

Working in a foreign country has taught me a great deal of things, including the value of culture, personality and self-esteem. For a month I had been volunteering in special needs centres, child development centres and the Sri Lankan National Institute of Mental Health. I have witnessed conditions far different than in the United Kingdom and have memories that will last me a lifetime. Despite the many difficult circumstances that I encountered, I have great respect for the Sri Lankan culture and felt incredibly welcome during my stay.

Working as a volunteer
Whilst visiting, I worked with a group of volunteers to conduct therapeutic activity sessions for patients with a variety of mental health conditions. Although we ran these sessions within a range of centres, the wards of the National Institute of Mental Health particularly stood out to me. I was intrigued to see how reliant upon drug therapy the practitioners seemed to be; doctors informed me that the vast majority of patients were under sedation and that this was the most common method of treatment for mental health conditions in Sri Lanka, if treatment was to be provided at all. Furthermore, electroconvulsive therapy was commonplace: doctors estimated that approximately 40 procedures took place per day.

When I questioned the use of psychological therapies it became clear just how reliant upon physiological treatments these institutions were. Psychological methods appeared to be mostly neglected. I was informed that there are currently no practising psychologists in the country and only a few psychiatrists (approximately 60 psychiatrists to a population of 20 million people). Back in 2002 one Sri Lankan university offered psychology as an accredited undergraduate degree, though this course was largely based on philosophy and religion (DeZoysa & Ismail, 2002). If psychological interventions are to be considered as a more widely used option in Sri Lanka then perhaps awareness of the available methods could be raised.

The reliance upon medication seemed to extend to patients, as well as practitioners. I was able to attend a clinical outreach trip with a local psychiatrist, during which we visited an elderly home to assess the mental functioning of the residents on an individual basis. Many of the residents had been prescribed medication by previous doctors, and were reluctant to reduce their dosage. The psychiatrist suggested that he was personally keen to reduce the reliance on drug therapy in favour of more psychological methods, such as cognitive behavioural therapy. He went on to say that making this transition from physiological to psychological therapies would be incredibly difficult due to the lack of education about psychology and the stigma associated with mental health in Sri Lanka.

As volunteers, we hoped to encourage the use of psychological therapy both within and outside of the National Institute of Mental Health. In the occupational therapy wards, patients were able to express themselves during organised painting sessions, alongside sewing and bead making. Products made by the patients were then sold by the hospital and proceeds went to further the development of the wards. I found this process to be very positive, and our aim as volunteers was to extend these sessions to wards where activities were otherwise limited. Even so, it seemed that the main difficulty in achieving this active engagement with the community was related to negative attitudes towards mental illness.

On the stigma of mental health
Mental health stigma is problematic in the sense that it becomes difficult to see past the label of a mental illness. As such, any negative views associated with the label are often reflected onto the person with the diagnosis. Evidence for this can be traced back to Rosenhan’s (1973) experiments, during which mentally sane patients claimed to experience symptoms of schizophrenia in order to be admitted into psychiatric institutions. Once admitted, the patients were refused discharge despite their apparent lack of symptomatology and natural behaviour within the hospital. To quote Rosenhan on labelling a person with schizophrenia, ‘the tag profoundly colours others’ perceptions of him and his behaviour’.’

The negative stigma of mental health is not restricted to Sri Lanka, being equally prevalent in Western cultures. For example, recent studies suggest that over 70 per cent of the British population consider people with schizophrenia to be a ‘danger to others’, and 60 per cent of Britain believe that people with depression are ‘hard to talk to’ (West et al., 2010). Similarly, Fernando et al. (2009) found that 70 per cent of their  Sri Lankan sample believed patients with schizophrenia, depression and drug/alcohol addiction to be ‘unpredictable’, and these negative views seemed to be endorsed by doctors and students. A large majority of the population seem to have misconceived views where mental illness is concerned, and these perceptions need to be addressed on a worldwide scale.

Differences in culture and practice
Regarding family in Sri Lanka, the culture is such that a positive family relationship plays an important role in gaining respect from the community. If there is a conflict within the family, then the family considers themselves to be shamed. Coupled with the stigma of mental health, this emphasis on maintaining family harmony explains why many mentally ill patients find themselves relying on psychiatric institutions and special needs centres, with no one else to turn to. Family attitudes seemed to be ingrained within the Sri Lankan culture, and there appears to be a hierarchical structure with male dominant family figures. For example, research has demonstrated that wives who believed that they should obey their husbands and prevent the interventions of outsiders were actually less likely to experience intimate partner violence and have more peaceful family relationships (Jayatilleke et al., 2010). It is because of these ingrained attitudes and reliance on family harmony that breaking the stigma of mental health in Sri Lanka will no doubt be difficult to achieve.

Despite the obstacles in breaking mental health stigma, the strong emphasis on family relationships in Sri Lanka is something that I believe would be useful in a clinical setting. Family therapy is an option that I think would greatly benefit the Sri Lankan community, if not for the current negativity towards mental illness. If more family members were to become directly involved with therapy procedures then patients with mental illnesses may demonstrate better chances of coping and recovery. Wickrama and Kaspar (2007) found that a strong attachment to parents increased the resilience of Sri Lankan adolescents in the wake of the 2004 tsunami, with a positive child–mother relationship reducing the symptoms of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

During the volunteering programme, I attended educational sessions based on the currently used psychological therapy methods in Sri Lanka: meditation and drama therapy. The former was primarily focused on the Buddhist faith that is highly prevalent in Sri Lanka, and involved spiritual healing and relaxation. The latter therapy aims to help clients to explore their feelings and express them through movement and sound, based on the principle of catharsis. Having personally experienced the nature of the therapy – albeit only briefly – I could begin to understand how useful drama therapy would be in relaxation as well as improving speech, communication and motor skills. Furthermore, the therapy is easily adapted according to the client and the culture. The sessions I became involved with were aimed at increasing rapport with the therapist and were very philosophical and metaphysical, appealing to the largely religious community of Sri Lanka. Further insight into the practice of drama therapy can be found within Ranasinha’s (2013) book, which inspires the theory and practice of drama therapy in Sri Lanka.

A look to the future
My time spent in Sri Lanka was as pleasant as it was insightful. The people, the scenery and the welcoming and immersive culture will remain with me throughout my personal and academic development. I was fortunate enough to see the treatment of mental health from an Eastern perspective, and it was clear  to me that views of mental health are changing in Sri Lanka as much as they  are here in the UK.

Tackling the stigma of mental health is a gradual process, but many of the professionals that I had contact with seemed optimistic about the future of Sri Lankan psychology. With time, we may see a reduction in the use  of drug-based therapies and an increase
in psychological interventions. 

Christopher Hunt is an undergraduate student at the University of Birmingham [email protected]

DeZoysa, P. & Ismail, C. (2002). Psychology in an Asian country: A report from Sri Lanka. International Journal of Psychology, 37(2), 110–111.
Fernando, S.M., Deane, F.P. & McLeod, H.J. (2009). Sri Lankan doctors’ and medical undergraduates’ attitudes towards mental illness. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 45(7), 733–739.
Jayatilleke, A., Poudel, K.C., Sakisaka, K. et al. (2010). Wives’ attitudes towards gender roles and their experiences of intimate partner violence by husbands in central province, Sri Lanka. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 26, 414–432.
Ranasinha, R. (2013). Dramatherapy in Sri Lanka. Colombo: Author.
Rosenhan, D.L. (1973). On being sane in insane places. Science, 179, 250–258.
West, K., Holmes, E.A. & Hewstone, M. (2010). Rethinking ‘mental health stigma.’ European Journal of Public Health, 20, 131–132.
Wickrama, K.A.S. & Kaspar, V. (2007). Family context of mental health risk in tsunami-exposed adolescents: Findings from a pilot study in Sri Lanka. Social Science & Medicine, 64, 713–723.

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