The following is an editorial by Alicja Grzadkowska, senior news editor at Insurance Business. To reach out to Alicja, email her at [email protected]
This year has put many people’s mental health and well-being to the test. With the spread of the coronavirus upending every aspect of our lives, combined with social movements for racial equality that have underscored the work that still needs to be done and natural catastrophes taking their usual toll, not to mention the upcoming US election spewing divisiveness around the world, the things that are out of our control may feel insurmountable.
While they’re not at the literal frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic in the same way that medical professionals working in hospitals are, professionals in the insurance industry nonetheless have been exposed firsthand to the challenges facing insureds during this time, in addition to dealing with the impacts of COVID-19 on their own work and lives. This environment has put a strain on these professionals’ mental health, and in turn requires insurance leaders to put a strong focus on the well-being of their staff – especially as the starting point for mental health in this industry is already at a disadvantage compared to other sectors.
According to one CEO, who recently spoke to Insurance Business for the IB Talk podcast, mental health challenges have been particularly dire in insurance, long before the pandemic.
“It has a lot to do with the kind of culture that’s been prevalent in the industry,” said Claire Russell, CEO of Mental Health in Business, pointing to a Deloitte study that found that in the UK, the highest per-employee annual costs of mental health across industries have been seen in finance, insurance, and real estate. Some of the reasons that insurance falls on that list include longer working hours, job pressures and significant responsibilities, as well as the fact that, historically, insurance has been a male-dominated industry, with men traditionally less likely to be open about problems than women. In turn, a culture has taken hold where not talking about your problems in the workplace is the norm, and, if you are struggling, there’s a tendency to leave these challenges at home.
There have been several calls to support the mental health of insurance professionals in the past year. In Australia, industry representatives made a united call for a bipartisan and coordinated approach to support the mental health of financial advisers more broadly at a recent Leaders Forum hosted by Zurich Life & Investments. The message came as financial advisers struggled to cope with the “perfect storm of change” confronting the advice profession, including new professional standards, the ceasing of grandfathered commissions, and widespread licensee consolidation. A key message from the conference was that, despite efforts to support the mental health of advisers, there remains a gap as many organisations are not trained to deal with suicide threats or real distress.
In fact, much of the focus on mental health has been aimed at helping clients mitigate against associated risks, especially in light of the coronavirus and the threat of employee burnout. Yet, the same risks apply to the insurance professionals who are dispensing the advice. For instance, a recent study conducted by Qualtrics, which involved more than 2,000 employees from the US, the UK, Australia, France, Germany, New Zealand, and Singapore, revealed that 41.6% of employees believe their mental health has declined since the COVID-19 outbreak. Meanwhile in Canada, a survey from Sun Life determined that more than half of Canadians said that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a negative impact on their mental health, and many cited the resulting social isolation as a major factor.
In recent months, insurance companies have been making an effort to focus on employee well-being, seen through the ways in which firms are trying to boost morale during this time, whether that involves weekly video calls where employees can connect with their colleagues or regular surveys to gauge what staff are thinking and feeling. However, at the same time, there needs to be a more open discussion about the very real challenges that insurance professionals face when it comes to their mental health – conversations that aren’t as fun as Friday evening virtual drinks, but are potentially even more necessary to address the stressful reality in which insurance professionals often work.
Many of them are, after all, working in client-facing roles, such as those in claims, as well as agents and brokers, and are spending a lot of their time supporting clients through hard business and personal decisions these days, as well as trying to find solutions to protect clients from further financial loss that aren’t exactly plentiful. Just as insureds turn to them for guidance, these professionals also need a framework of support to turn to in their own companies. Moreover, this support should be formalised with support staff, training, and other resources on-hand, instead of companies solely relying on their employees to ‘talk it out’ with each other at the water cooler.
At a time when each day seems to bring more bad news, now is the time for the insurance industry to move past the taboo of talking about mental health, and face it head on.