Mental health and natural disasters – what should insurers be doing?

Insurers have been been helping vulnerable customers affected by catastrophes, but how wide is the remit?

Mental health and natural disasters – what should insurers be doing?

Insurance News

By Alexi Demetriadi

Aside from the devastatingly tangible effects of bushfires – destroyed homes, widespread damage, injury and trauma – there is one, more unseen, consequence of this and similar natural disasters, namely the impact on mental health. The trauma and devastation that natural disasters often bring about can have a damaging effect on the mental state of individuals, something that is being addressed in more substantial efforts by varying local bodies and authorities.

Insurers across the country have been responding with speed and compassion to those affected by the recent natural disasters in Australia – from the bushfires to the hailstorms and flooding. A host of extra help has been rolled out to better help affected customers and individuals over recent months. But in what ways are insurers making movements in this specific field?

Zurich has leveraged its own MindFIT program as part of a collaboration with OnePath, to bring to customers the platform’s range of resources to help improve mental health through a detailed library of initiatives and tools. Zurich also worked with its various mental health partners to promote the resources available via its e-wellbeing hub, offered by MindStar, as well as encouraging the use of its Tackle Your Feelings mental health program.

TAL, a life insurance specialist, announced earlier this week it would be launching a new course through its ‘Risk Academy’ to help advisers supporting clients dealing with the aftermath of a natural disaster – with a significant mental health focus. TAL’s head of mental health Glenn Baird will be joined by Nicole Sadler, head of policy and practice at Phoenix Australia for a Q&A about the different effects natural disasters can have on mental health as well as how to navigate difficult conversations.

In a recent announcement, Baird discussed the mental health aspects of such disasters, and what TAL was trying to do to mitigate this.

“Studies show that those impacted can experience adverse changes to their mental health due to the stresses brought about by the effects of natural disasters on their income, accommodation or personal relationships,” Baird said. “The Risk Academy course will include a Q&A session between advisers and Nicole Sadler, a clinical psychologist, and we will discuss the different effects natural disasters can have on mental health as well as how to navigate difficult or upsetting conversations.”

Allianz Australia is another insurer dedicating its resources to this cause. It recently announced a free counselling service for Australian customers and their immediate families who have been impacted by the catastrophe. Run in partnership with independent counselling service Assure Programs, the program will offer any Allianz customer and each family member or partner access to three free, independent counselling sessions, available over the phone or in person at over 400 locations throughout Australia, with a professional psychologist.

Helen Silver, chief general manager of corporate governance and conduct at Allianz Australia, explained to Insurance Business the necessity of rolling out the program.

“At Allianz we are continually looking at how we can improve outcomes for our customers,” she said. “We have extended our employee assistance program to include customers affected by bushfires because we appreciate the emotional toll these events can have. This can occur immediately, or a little while after the event.

“Allianz’s support doesn’t stop at insurance, we are committed to providing the necessary assistance our customers and their families need through this hard time,” she explained. “We recognise the mental health impacts of distressing events like the bushfire crisis can be huge - even the impact of witnessing the devastation can be long lasting.”

And while we often look at the help insurers are doing in a ‘physical sense’ to help affected customers, the work some do in the mental health field sometimes goes unnoticed. But do insurers have a duty to help those customers with mental health problems as a consequence of natural disaster events?

Insurance Business spoke to Paul Muir, founder of Compliance Advocacy Solutions and an expert on the General Insurance Code of Practice, who believes that the new code would point to the need to ensure care for potentially ‘vulnerable’ customers.

“Within the new Insurance Council of Australia’s (ICA) code of practice, problems with someone’s mental health would fall into the extra care and vulnerability part of the code,” explained Muir. This part of the code ensures that insurers take extra measures at all opportunities to help their customers that fall into this category. “Part nine of the code includes guidelines as far as mental health is concerned, and these parts of the new code were put into place by the ICA to respond to situations such as this,” he said.

And while Muir explained that no-one expects insurers to turn into counsellor, it has become more normal to help those customers affected by disasters – and this will only continue moving forward.

“There is no expectation on those in the industry to become counsellor, but the key will be to help those vulnerable customers, especially in the first instance of such an event,” Muir explained. “But, to be fair, insurers have been doing a lot of work in this field anyway – they have been moving down this pathway already.”

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