Mental Health Awareness Week: Views from the industry

Health and protection specialists

John Brazier
clock • 9 min read
Mental Health Awareness Week: Views from the industry

COVER presents the insights of various health and protection advisers and experts on mental health and how the industry has approached the subject amidst a global pandemic

As Mental Health Awareness Week draws to a close, it's time to take stock and review what we have learned from the stories, resources and insights that have been shared across the health and protection space. You can find all of COVER's editorial and resources for Mental Health Awareness Week here

While the topic of mental health has been a key talking point for some time in the industry, it's vital that this dialogue continues beyond this week and is converted into sustainable action. At COVER, we recognise that we have a role to play in this as a platform for affecting ongoing change for the health and protection industry through our editorial and events.

That's why we asked a range of health and protection industry experts and advisers to share their thoughts on mental health, including personal experiences, views on how the industry has coped with the Covid-19 pandemic and where improvements still need to be made.

Claire Ginnelly, managing director, Premier Choice Group:

"This relates to a family member, someone who has had their mental health impacted by the first lockdown. He lives on his own in a flat and was furloughed. He had nearly four months of virtually no physical contact with anyone and then started to emerge with bad anxiety and almost a fear of being near people.

"Living on his own his anxiety took hold and got out of control. He works for a large UK company who were understanding and decided that as a result of his condition he would be one of the last brought back from furlough, even though the team he manages were one of the first. Although they were trying to be helpful, it had the opposite effect. When he did return to work they continued to be helpful (as they still do) but their answer to the problem was for him to phone the EAP. This demonstrates how employers need a better understanding of how they can help their employees.

"Mental health training is just one way they can do this. However, as advisers we can talk to our clients about the problems their employees face and the solutions we may have for them. For some companies, they may have solutions in the existing employee benefits offered but for others it will be making them aware of what is available. It is also making employers aware that as good as an EAP is, it is not necessarily the answer to mental health issues.

Tom Baigrie, chief executive, LifeSearch:

"It's a wonderful thing that we all now talk about mental health so much. Life and disability insurers have a vested interest in improving the nation's health both physical and mental, so it makes good business and moral sense for our industry to engage fully in both.

"But we should also be honest and face up to the fact that it is income protection, our most valuable and least sold product, that is the one that protects the insured against disability caused by chronic mental health issues. Critical illness, our most oversold product, does not.

"Let's not just talk, let's not blame the product, let's take on the moral duty of protecting families in the ways we know are best for them and not the ways that are easiest for us to make money from. Insurers and distributors alike should strive to make income protection the best-selling protection product it so can be."

Roy Mcloughlin, associate director, Cavendish Ware:

"I think the industry actually deserves a pat on the back as to how it has dealt with such a difficult subject. Firstly, many advisers (and certainly the PDG) backed NOVAD (No Virus Anymore Day), as well as COVER, notable insurers and journalists.

"Secondly, many actually took the time to check in on and look after our own - being an adviser does not make you bulletproof to these difficult and uncertain times. Thirdly, we supported our clients not just in the obvious ways but often as an outlet of support that many didn't necessarily receive from other sources in their lives. Sometimes the simplest thing is the most powerful and communication can be the greatest cure." 

Amy Tomlinson, head of HR, MetLife UK:

"As society opens up and we look ahead to a more sociable summer, it's important to remember that people's feelings towards lockdown and the future may be very different. While some are happy to be out and about again, others may have enjoyed the security of spending more time at home.

"Stress doesn't clock off at 5, it can carry over into our evenings and weekends, but employers have a key role to play in supporting staff. From small steps such as encouraging open channels of communication, watching for employee burnout and allowing employees to go at their own pace, to reviewing current employee benefits policies and training mental health first aiders, businesses should ensure they are doing all they can to support staff both professionally and personally."

Steve Casey, marketing director, Square Health:

"As you would expect, we have seen a considerable increase in the provision of mental health support across our portfolio since March last year. This growth has followed a similar path to that of our digital GP consultations, albeit with a slight time lag.

"Anxiety and depression/low mood are the reasons given for nearly 70% of the consultations requests and people seem very happy to proceed on a digital basis. Nine out of 10 people saying that they would recommend the service to a colleague or family member based upon their experience.

"There is also evidence that when booking the consultation, they are reviewing the biography of the counsellor/therapist which is really positive and helps them in the journey of asking for help."

Phil Jeynes, director of corporate strategy, Reassured:

"I wouldn't claim to be any sort of expert on mental health, but I can tell you what's worked for me. Firstly: exercise. This means different things to different people, but I know for certain that my mood improves when I've got moving.

"At the start of this year, having been unable to play organised sports for months and after a decadent December, I pledged to run to the top of the hill where I live and back every morning. It wasn't all that far but it set a goal and made me accountable to myself. It felt great starting work having been outside and having done something for my health every day. I had weekends off…"

Kathryn Knowles, managing director, Cura Financial Services:

"More than ever, many people's mental health has been tested this past year. For me, something that has stood out is that there has been a huge drive from insurers to offer mental health support services, encouraging people to reach out and talk. To not feel ashamed about needing someone to simply talk to, to maintain their mental health. A positive lifestyle choice just like cutting out red meat, walking more and watching the cheeky gins.

"But whilst the industry is saying this, there is a drawback. Applying for income protection when you are speaking to a counsellor, will lead to a mental health exclusion as a minimum. We need to make sure that whilst we are promoting mental health support services, that this doesn't lead to worse consumer outcomes."

Daniel Sharpe-Szunko, managing director, iamINSURED:

"Some of the things that stick in my mind when thinking about mental health are the extreme cases where we have been speaking to customers with a history of abuse, for example. The feeling that you get as an advisor when you speak to people and what they've had to deal with can be distressing for us, so god only knows how it must be for our customers. I always admire people who have been through traumatic experiences and managed to find a way to deal with it somehow.

"My personal view on mental health is that we as advisors play a major role in supporting customers and that we should not be taking that responsibility lightly. As an industry we have an opportunity to help raise awareness, and especially where we see certain things like how many people are talking to us about suicide, self-harm, and other serious but very real issues."

Emma Thomson, head of protection & general insurance propositions, Sesame Bankhall Group:

"I think what this pandemic has done is to improve awareness of mental wellbeing and acceptance that ‘it's OK to not be OK'. It's no longer just a problem that ‘happens to someone else'; we have all been affected. The publicity around mental health issues and the increased support shown by many employers during this crisis should have a far-reaching impact on our attitudes to mental wellbeing going forward.

"At SBG we partnered with specialist provider Care first last year to provide not only our own people with a 24/7 assistance programme, but funded this for our Sesame adviser firms too, so that they could also be supported. As a society we need to acknowledge that mental wellbeing will remain just as important once this crisis has passed to ensure we continue to provide support and understanding to those who need it - which is pretty much every one of us."

Matt Chapman, senior protection expert, Plus Financial Group:

"From my perspective, we need to do much more to highlight the important role that protection can play in supporting people experiencing a deterioration in their mental health. We also need to be cognisant that support can come in many forms and it's not always the financial benefit that has the most impact.

"During the pandemic, we used the additional benefits included with our group life policy to arrange counselling for my teenage daughter who was suffering from Covid-related anxiety. It had a profound effect for her. Because the pandemic is likely to have amplified the problem for many, resulting in increased instances of poor mental health in the future, we need to consider how we respond as an industry. We need to ensure that we keep mental health at the top of our agenda and look to design and deliver products and services that better serve and support those suffering from poor mental health - the problem is not going away." 

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