Following the Mental Health & Wellbeing 360 conference last week, COVER editor John Brazier shares his thoughts on the conference and its key messages
Sometimes you just have to let things percolate for a while before you can appreciate the full extent of the significance involved. For attendees of a full-day conference packed with panel discussions and presentations, it can be a lot to take in and the minutiae can be obscured by the bigger picture.
It's the same for those of us on the editorial side of things when it comes to events like our Mental Health and Wellbeing 360 conference last week, and sometimes even to a greater degree. When you are at the coalface you often won't be able to take in as much as you'd like. Thankfully, we are able to provide an on-demand viewing option for events like these.
This event was my first as COVER editor and I have taken the opportunity to note down some of what I believed to be the conference's main takeaways, both in terms of the content and my own impressions as a relative newcomer to protection.
There is a danger of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy whereby telling people they are stressed and anxious will cause it to come true, negating the work being done on the prevention element."
Prevention prevention prevention
Those of us old enough to remember Tony Blair's ‘education education education' rhetoric from the mid-to-late 90s may have heard the former PM's words ringing on our ears on the day, as the importance and relevance of prevention for good mental health and wellbeing was emphasised again and again.
It's a message that bears repeating though: While there have been a raft of support services launched by various protection and insurance providers throughout the pandemic, these are, of course, reactive and focus on treatment for mental health issues.
The key here is to prevent problems before they either arise or grow sufficiently problematic to cause serious damage to the individual in question. Whether this is on a personal level or through an EAP, this type of education is critical to making both people and employers aware of how to recognise early warning signs or behaviours, how to act on them and get the right support in place.
It is easier said than done, but the acknowledgment of prevention's critical role in improving mental health, as well as the increasing number of options available, is extremely encouraging and will form the foundations of our work going forward as we look towards a post-Covid life.
Underwriting must evolve on mental health
Like many practises within the wider financial services sector, protection and insurance is guilty of its more out-dated aspects, and when it comes to mental health development, underwriting is one of the main culprits.
The increased use of online, automated protection services during lockdown has meant that many of the conditions and stories behind mental health issues are not being taken into account in the underwriting process, meaning people are more likely to be penalised with higher premiums or even denied protection.
In turn, experiencing this will only exacerbate or cause new mental health issues to arise. Mental health issues are, by nature, subjective compared to physical health ailments that are evidenced far more easily. Without taking into account the complexities of mental health while underwriting a policy, customers are being put in very difficult positions and may require extra support as they undertake an online process. Insurers and protection specialists clearly have an opportunity here to develop and improve underwriting to better understand and incorporate mental health conditions, for the benefit of everyone.
Positive vibes, please
One of the more interesting elements, from a psychological view, to come out of the day's panels was the importance of positive messaging and attitudes in maintaining mental health. Now this may seem obvious at first glance, but there is more to it than mantras or empty slogans.
The protection job is all about having difficult conversations with people and the way in which these discussions are handled, what attitudes and messaging is used, is an important factor. So consider then the messaging and framing of how we talk about the near-term future of mental health. There have been numerous statistics and press releases highlighting increased stress and anxiety levels throughout the pandemic, ramping up significantly as we talk of re-opening workplaces.
There is a danger of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy whereby telling people they are stressed and anxious will cause it to come true, negating the work being done on the prevention element. Framing these discussions in a more positive light, emphasising the optimistic and constructive factors involved, will help employees that may be struggling or experiencing early signs of deteriorating mental health to better cope with a future that still contains a huge amount of uncertainty and change from what they were previously used to.
Virtual is good, but it could be better
This event was also my first in a virtual setting and I was pleased with how accessible it all proved to be on the day. It certainly feels easier to hold court during a panel session when you can't actually see the audience staring back at you…
Remote or virtual settings were a much-talked about topic throughout the conference, predominantly the impact of working from home and how it has influenced our mental health, for better or worse. The consensus that the best approach to take is to let employees decide what is the best model for them and work on a flexible basis going forward is the ideal answer, allowing for people to either blend their work and home life as it suits, or lay down the more familiar delineations between the two.
The problem here is that this model is going to be unique to each employee and while larger enterprises with the resources and flexibility to offer such arrangements will likely do so, SMEs or those employers that don't have such luxuries are going to find it hard to offer people their ideal mental health option.
Technology has enabled us to be more connected than we probably ever thought possible, but the cost has also become clear. We have all experienced Zoom fatigue or felt that our home has simply become an extension of our professional lives over the last year, so the question now becomes: Are employers going to listen when the time comes to open the office again?
Will we learn from our experiences?
It is in my personal nature to often take a cynical view of things, and that has served me well during my career as a journalist. So, the question that kept circling my thoughts both on the day of the conference and since, is if we, on an individual, professional and societal level, actually learn from our experiences and evolve our attitudes and actions on mental health, or will we fall back into old habits when our worlds begin to resemble what we remember them as?
Will employers take this opportunity to maintain and continue developing their support services for staff, taking mental health and wellbeing as seriously as they have during the worst of the pandemic, or will they shift their focus to other matters?
Will employees continue to use the services that are available to them, continue to push for better support and make certain that their working environment is suitable for them, or will they accept that with the pandemic beginning to fall into memory, that the comfort of the familiar is more palatable?
Will society as a whole remember to value the importance of mental health and wellbeing, to not stigmatise those that are suffering and offer the assistance needed without judgement?
No-one has the answers to these questions and, as is so often the case, time will be the only way to tell. Despite my cynicism, I truly hope that we avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.