Jennifer Wallis lays out what we learnt at our recent mental health event
Following on from last year's highly successful COVER Mental Health Forum, Thursday 12 March saw its return as the expanded COVER Mental Health and Wellbeing Summit, which carried the strapline ‘Turning Awareness into Action'.
Held at London's 99 City Road conference centre, the date fell before the recent advice from the government to avoid public spaces so it went ahead as planned. A whole host of talks and panels explored how our industry can better support customers and employees when it comes to mental health and wellbeing, whilst providing invaluable advice on how to look after our self and others, which was fitting considering the hugely testing times were are entering as a nation. Here we are some key takeaways from the day...
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In an incredibly honest and moving talk, Quietroom's strategy director, Rhys Williams, explained that keeping quiet about internal problems that we are experiencing "cuts you off from sources of help". He highlighted, through recounting his own experience, how the process of talking helped him. He created a post on blogging platform Medium, entitled Beans For Everyone, where he discussed his traumatic childhood, which contributed to his own mental ill health. He did this in spite of colleagues advising him against it.
This fear of talking openly about mental health still exists in workplaces today and this could go some way to explaining the findings of Business in the Community's (BITC) 2019 report, which wellbeing director Louise Aston presented at the event. It found that two out of five employees experienced poor mental health in the past year with work being a contributing factor, and 51% of employees said they felt uncomfortable talking about their mental health at work. "Employers impact mental health," Aston told delegates. "The only decision we must make is if it's positive or negative."
She explained that an open culture must be promoted to tackle the stigma surrounding mental health. Jenny Cochrane, co-founder of the not-for-profit organisation dedicated to tackling burnout, Getahead, echoed that sentiment: "If you look after your team, you attract the best calibre of people."
Grief is messy
"Twenty percent of the workforce is suffering the grief of a major life change at any given time," film producer and grief investigator Lizzie Pickering told delegates during the opening keynote conversation about grief, hosted by Adviser.ai founder Luke Ashworth. Both of whom have suffered the devastating loss of a child.
She pointed out that there needs to be more longevity in the help that employers provide. "Silence is deadly. Companies give six weeks of counselling and then silence. No one mentions it. No major company has provision after a year."
According to Lizzie, grief is not linear; it's messy and many factors could build up and trigger past losses with some employees keeping their pain locked away for fear of losing their jobs, referring to "high performance mask wearers". The provisions that are in place within companies are often not taken up. Grief can also cause adverse physical problems such as gut problems caused by stress or even alopecia. Exercise and better nutrition can help us get through grief and things that employers could provide.
Early intervention and rehabilitation are key
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) 300 million people are suffering from mental illness at any time. This is now a major cause of long-term absenteeism with 15 million working days lost each year. So what can we do to prevent that?
Vanessa Sallows, claims and governance director at Legal & General, spoke about providing "tailored, individual care" in which they place the person at the heart of their approach.
Again, communication was cited as a defining factor. "We know how to talk about physical health, when we need a plaster or the doctors" so why don't we talk about our mental health? Vanessa and her team, including physicians, clinicians and physios, work alongside employers, line managers and colleagues to help them provide support to the employees returning to work after time off due to mental ill health as well as providing the employee with a tailored rehabilitation programme and CBT sessions at no extra premium.
She also confirmed that early intervention rehabilitation is being made available for individual protection policies as well as through group income protection.
Train and support advisers
According to recent poll, Mental Health UK found that as many as 40% of customers with a mental illness said they thought questions were asked inappropriately by life insurers.
Sarah Murphy, of Mental Health UK, added that conversation with clients can also be challenging for advisers, who, she said, can occasionally hear "traumatic experiences". "These can be triggering and remind them of something that happened to them," she said.
Employee assistance programmes (EAPs) can play a part here and encouraged advisers to call them immediately after distressing calls with clients. She also stressed the importance of training for advisers.
Getting the language right around mental health and asking questions with sensitivity is essential when going through the underwriting process so as not to cause any unnecessary distress.
On a panel discussion alongside Alea Risk's Andrew Wibberley, Cura Financial Services managing director Kathryn Knowles shared some of her personal experience facing clients with a history of mental illness and explained that advisers need to know their boundaries. She added that the use of wording is very important too, so being mindful of the way language is structured when discussing mental health with clients is something advisers always should try to do.
Wibberley added: "There are different ways of asking questions." He said that as an underwriter its important to "put yourself in their shoes."
Five ways to wellbeing
On a panel exploring burnout, Debbie Kleiner, head of workplace wellbeing at PES, pointed to the evidence based framework of Five Ways to Wellbeing. These are:
- Connect. Reach out to someone new, ask how someone is and really listen
- Be active. According to mental health charity Mind, "regular physical activity is associated with lower rates of depression and anxiety across all age groups. Exercise is essential for slowing age-related cognitive decline and for promoting well-being". Take a walk at lunchtime, cycle into work or even do a few yoga stretches before work.
- Take notice. Try to practice being aware of the present moment that you are in and really savour and appreciate it. Being mindful has numerous proven mental health benefits
- Keep learning. Learning a new skill can build your confidence and self-esteem, bring a sense of purpose to life and connect you to others
- Give. Giving back or to others can have a multitude of positive effects. The NHS website states that this can be "small acts of kindness towards other people, or larger ones like volunteering in your local community" something that is especially important in our current situation.
Use personal stories
Throughout the day it was reiterated time and again that using case studies was imperative in helping advisors and customers alike. Cavendish Ware's Roy McLoughlin, who also chairs the Income Protection Task Force (IPTF), the industry body behind the Seven Families campaign, said that "people react to situations that have happened and [are able to] see the solutions".
Keith Roberston, a senior underwriter at Holloway Friendly, delivered an incredibly heartfelt and humorous talk on A New Approach to Mental Health and echoed this sentiment of using "real people". "We'll learn as we go," he said. "As long as we're doing the right thing for the customer." Case studies and real life stories can also come from leaders and CEOs in the industry. Louise Aston highlighted the importance of authentic leadership and role models, while COVER's editor Adam Saville pointed to the CEO of Lloyd's Banking Group, António Horta-Osorio, opening up about his own experience of burnout.
Diet and depression
While often looked by Big Pharma and modern medical practices, there is historic science that shows the intrinsic link between diet and mental health. Neuroscientist Matt Janes delved deeper into this in his closing keynote. Through his own personal experience of helping his father cure depression through diet we learnt of the crucial role our autonomic nervous system plays in both our physical and mental health and how what we eat can help to balance our sympathetic and parasympathetic systems and that we can "achieve exceptional mental health through nutrition". He pointed out that eating red meat can help treat depression and that eating organic, good quality foods can sustain a healthy mind.
Remember to be kind
As we all enter what will no doubt prove to be extremely uncertain and unstable times, we will do well to keep in mind these words from the inspirational Rhys Williams: "take the time to be kind. Everyone is dealing with something you can't see". And as our editor concluded in his closing summary: "These are testing times. Continue to be kind".