May 20, 2020

Staff anxiety and stress is a risk factor for insurers

Employees working in the insurance sector may not face the same type of stress as those employed in the emergency services or education, but the need to recognise the issue and address it is just as pressing.

One might imagine that as insurers are responsible for managing so many stress-related employment claims, they would be highly attuned to the impact of work on the emotional wellbeing of employees. However, are insurers attuned to the risks presented to their own workforces, particularly when employees are being asked to cope with new ways of working, for example under the Covid 19 Lockdown?

The Health and Safety Executive’s publication Tackling Work-related Stress notes that employees in service organisations, which include insurers and brokers, are subjected to a number of factors that can create stress and anxiety even in the absence of the challenges created by Covid 19. First, you’re offering a service, so your workload is reactive and possibly out of your control. Second, mobile phones and technology make you contactable outside normal office hours. Third, you may be managed by people based in another location. Finally, your organisation is subject to considerable external scrutiny and inspection.  In present circumstances, you are isolated from the colleagues from whom you gain support and remote working may make accessing data  slower or more difficult at a time when customers have an urgent need for information and reassurance.

In addition, organisational change has been a major characteristic of the insurance industry for some time now. Over the last 5–6 years, many insurance businesses have made major adjustments in order to keep up with new technology, emerging risks and client expectations – not forgetting the perennial need to keep cutting costs. On top of that, there are our favourite organisational bookends: restructuring and redundancy – to which we can now add the potential furlough of colleagues. Bearing in mind that humans tend to struggle to cope with change – particularly when imposed – it can hardly come as a surprise that employee stress claims across the board are rising, and insurers are not immune.

Constant change

If managed poorly, large-scale organisational changes can easily result in claims for stress or even bullying. On some occasions, changes give rise to stop-gap solutions that increase the demands made on particular roles. Over the short term, individuals may well be able to soak up the additional workload; however, over the longer term, the cracks will start to appear. If management responds positively at this stage, the situation may be salvaged. However, pay heed to Daw v Intel Corporation (UK) Ltd [2007] EWCA Civ 70 in which an employer asked a worker for a list of everything that was wrong with her role. When she sent a lengthy document, her employer failed to respond adequately – and the situation continued to deteriorate.

The attitude of the employer is critical. Companies with so-called ‘macho’ cultures – the notion that we should all be working 4,000 hours a week and illness is for wimps – are veritable incubators for stress claims. Similarly, businesses that talk a good game can be just as problematic. A manager may say that his or her door is always open, but if they don’t listen and respond to their staff members’ complaints, that open door is simply a smokescreen. An offering of counselling without any action to address work demands may address effect but not cause.

Walk the talk

So how should insurers and brokers address the issues of workplace stress and anxiety? The key is that the push to encourage workplace well-being should be promoted by the employer. Waiting until the stress claims materialise is not sufficient. That said, if you’re promoting well-being, you need to put the actions in place that will allow well-being to flourish. One needs to create the environment in which a dialogue can happen and to allow people to come forward, while recognising that the more people who take this step, the more action the employer will need to take. Confidential counselling is positive but it’s far from a panacea.

It’s also important to recognise that helping staff who’ve suffered from stress or anxiety can be a tough and time-consuming business. A case I’ve handled recently involved an employee who experienced stress-related illness for over two years. Their employer identified a role with lower levels of stress associated with it in the short term, gave manageable, incremental targets and held weekly discussions. Eventually, the individual returned to their original role, which was remarkable, but was at a significant cost to their employer.

False assumptions

One classic error that many employers make is to assume that stress is primarily an issue for higher-ranking employees – those carrying the weight of the organisation on their shoulders. The reality is that anyone can be vulnerable to these pressures – male or female, senior or junior, baby boomer or millennial.

Employees working in the insurance sector may not face the same type of stress as those employed in the emergency services or education, but the need to recognise the issue and address it is just as pressing. With workplace behaviour and good health becoming much more of talking point, there will be upwards pressure on claim numbers. Therefore, it makes excellent sense of insurers and brokers to address these matters now rather than wait for the claims to arrive.

This article was previously published in Insurance Day.