Doughnut decorating, comedians and virtual therapy  – just some of the ways broker bosses are maintaining staff morale and connections as the UK insurance industry continues to work from home 

As many businesses in the UK continue to work from home during the Covid-19 pandemic, the mental health of staff that work remotely has been brought to light.

The Health Service Executive (HSE) has therefore been forced to shift its focus from reducing days lost to ill health in the workplace to protecting homeworkers.

As highlighted in last month’s Insurance Times webinar, some believe that working from home can be isolating and give rise to mental health issues.

And it is no secret that broking is stressful, last year in November Ecclesiastical’s survey revealed that stress affects three in five brokers and heavy workloads were the biggest contributor.

But with most staff members continuing to work at home, observing tell-tale signs for something like this has proven somewhat tricky. Insurance Times takes an in depth look at how broker bosses are monitoring mental health – and some have implemented some very creative strategies.

Keeping connected

Chris Newton, partner at law firm Keoghs told Insurance Times: “Given Covid-19, the HSE has shifted its focus and issued guidance about protecting home workers as more people work both alone and from home.

”Such guidance has included lone working without supervision, working with display screen equipment, stress and mental health. A core message is keeping in touch to make sure that employees are healthy, safe and feel supported.”

Prior to the UK’s lockdown, the HSE was clamping down on workplace stress due to 12.8 million working days being lost in 2018-19 because of stress, depression or anxiety, and therefore becoming a major issue for the government.

Under the Health and Safety at Work Act, 1974, Section 2, it is the duty of every employer to ensure the health, safety, and welfare at work of all employees, where reasonably practicable.

The HSE is therefore trying to educate employers to have the right management standards and policies in place to cover themselves, now that working from home is the norm.

Newton recommends a good risk assessment process and knowing what is not covered in the workplace’s insurance policy.

Direct Insurance claims to be the first broker to announce permanent flexible working for its 150 strong staff force. Its staff have the option to continue working from home, return to the office when it is safe or a combination of both.

But the broker has also provided staff with various activities to boost morale and help everyone stay connected.

All staff have access to a free weekly one-to-one session with a personal trainer via video, and Direct Insurance also held a quiz night on Zoom hosted by comedian Lee Nelson. 

The broker also held a doughnut decorating competition for staff. In addition to this, Direct Insurance asked the children of staff a series of questions to provoke amusing responses such as what does their parent do for work. The firm compiled a video of the responses, amd one savvy nine-year-old knew their parent was an underwriter.

Neil Milner, chief people pfficer, at Direct Insurance Group told Insurance Times: ”We have sent out a number of staff treat packages including a create your own doughnut kit. This went down very well with everyone as they were able to engage their whole family in the process and was very popular with staff members children. We will certainly continue to engage in activities once we make a return [to the offices] and many of these initiatives were in place prior to lockdown. We have an in-house entertainments team made up of four staff who regularly come up with ideas on which activities we can implement.

”It is very important to monitor as everyone has their own way of trying to cope with issues they may face. We try to encourage a positive state of wellbeing throughout the business and we place a heavy focus on encouraging our staff to exercise. Recent studies show that increased exercise is a great way for employees to unwind from the pressure of everyday work.

”Continual engagement with staff, understanding what staff want to see from the business and doing our best to implement new initiatives . We encourage staff to try and have some fun and most teams are hosting weekly web calls where the emphasis is away from talking about work.”

First place doughnuts

Direct Insurance’s doughnut decorating contest, winner Phil Wood’s entry

But this was not the only initiative from brokers aimed at easing the strain on staff looking after children whilst working due to schools also being shut during lockdown. 

Earlier on in June, Marsh’s senior vice president and director in the events team Julie Katrus launched Kids Korner – a hub of resources for children. Inspired by her four-year-old daughter, Katrus realised that many colleagues were experiencing these same challenges. The hub includes a reading library where Marsh colleagues worldwide read their favourite children’s books on video. 

Andy Fairchild, chief executive at Applied Systems, also alluded to the stress of working from home and looking after children, pointing out that some employee’s home working space may double up as a living area and play area for the children. 

Duty of care

But handling staff stress is not all about fun staff initiativies, and the issue is a serious one for all brokers to get to grips with.

Newton said that one of the difficulties with stress is that it has different triggers, making it difficult to pinpoint and expensive to handle.

He warned: “There does not need to be an actual injury for there to be a breach of [HSW, 1974] Section 2 – it is about protecting against the risk of injury. Part of the HSE’s objectives is trying to minimise workplace accidents and illness and this includes stress.”

But to identify a stress claim it would need to be proven that the employee has a recognised psychiatric disorder such as post traumatic stress disorder that is triggered by stress.

Keely Rushmore, partner at SA Law, told Insurance Times: “All employers have a duty of care to their employees and should take all necessary precautions to take care of their mental wellbeing. Breach of this duty can leave employers vulnerable to a variety of claims including disability discrimination and personal injury, not to mention unwelcome effects on the business, such as reduced productivity.”

But Rushmore added that working from home can also raise a host of HR issues.

“Many employees will find avoiding a commute a relief, but, for some, the situation will of course be stressful. The isolation, lack of support, fear of the unknown, absence of the usual comradery, blurred lines between home and work, and potential (or perceived) risk to their roles can all contribute to this,” she continued.

“Add into the mix the usual demands of workloads, regulations and pressure to hit targets, and the situation is ripe for mental health issues to arise. The usual tell-tale signs may be very difficult to spot if an employee is working from home.”

Meanwhile, Newton said: “The more you allow flexibility at work, [the more difficult it is] to track the number of hours people do. It is more about monitoring what everyone is doing and making sure it is reasonable. Communication with your workers is key. Some people get stressed as they do not have enough work to do.”

Talking it out virtually

Another firm actively demonstrating duty of care to their employees is SJL Insurance. Back in April, the broker offered its 70 staff free mental health treatments every month from their own homes to discuss anything that they wish.

Founder and chief executive a Simon Lancaster said: “I decided to keep the mental health service that we started offering last June, as opposed to cutting costs and abandoning it for now, because I think now more than ever it is needed given the massive environmental and lifestyle change during the coronavirus lockdown. Fortunately, because people can now do video calls and mobile phone calls, staff are still able to have an almost identical service with a mental health nurse from their new home office.”

The move was received positively by staff, with one third saying it has been more beneficial than anything else they have tried before.

Staff issues dealt with by the mental health nurse range from family stress-related to relatives working in the NHS in a high-risk coronavirus location, domestic abuse, anxiety, working from home isolation and suicidal thoughts

SJL Insurance account executive Ellie Bould said: “I have struggled with my mental health for a number of years. My anxiety and over thinking started when I was in a long physically and mentally abusive relationship. The issue was that I could not get away from the main problem as it was domestic abuse, so the place that should have been my safe place became the most dangerous place for me.

“I lost all my confidence, lost my enthusiastic and outgoing personality. As part of my anxiety attacks, I was physically sick multiple times per day but still had to try and get on with my normal life, knowing that going home and getting into an argument could end in another wave of abuse. I was physically scared, lied to and worried about everything. It led me to be very sceptical of people, unable to trust and always thinking the worst of every situation as if the world was against me.”

Meanwhile, SJL Insurance team leader Dan Ingram said: “I have felt low enough where suicide was at the forefront of my mind. It seems crazy because I knew there were people much worse off than me. I have a great job, my physical health, a stunning fiancé, two dogs which make me smile every day but that does not stop that voice in your head clouding everything.

”Since the coronavirus pandemic occurred and the ability to socialise, exercise and keep to routine has become limited, it has not been easy for me.”

One size fits all?

Although Rushmore said that “there isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ approach to this issue, there are some measures insurers and brokers can take to put mental well-being onto the agenda.

“In terms of what insurers and brokers can do to counter these issues, ensuring employees feel virtually connected with each other is key, both in the context of work and socially. Enabling employees to have a contact point and opportunity to discuss any issues they are having, as well as cultivating a culture of openness and encouraging people to talk about their mental health is also key.”

Other suggestions included ensuring employees take annual leave, workplace surveys can help identify gaps in support as well as not forgetting to include furloughed colleagues.

Newton said, “a work-life balance is key” and again monitoring that.

Read more…The Big Question June 2020: When the insurance world returns to offices what will the “new normal” look like?

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