The stressful nature of the industry is causing many to turn to excessive drinking, so employers should step in to help. Lauren MacGillivray reports.

The pressures of regulation, market woes, sales demands and long hours make insurance a stressful career. Sometimes, that pressure can lead to addiction. Boozy lunches and after-work drinking sessions are just one way those in the industry, particularly in the City, let off steam.

Of course, these gatherings can be harmless. But harmless can quickly turn to harmful, and Lucy Beresford, a psychotherapist at The Priory in Roehampton and a former investment banker, has made a business out of advising people on healthier ways of dealing with stress.

Biba believes Beresford will be able to provide useful tips for brokers and insurers during its annual conference. A Biba spokesman says: “Stress, both negative and positive, is something everyone in business has to cope with on a daily basis. However, we know from our members that pressure from all sides has been particularly marked

over the past year. Brokers are having to contend with difficult market conditions, a credit squeeze, intense merger and acquisition activity and an increasingly combative regulator.

“We have in the past run seminars on general lifestyle issues and we know they are very popular. So we felt there was room on the programme for a session dedicated to recognising and coping with pressure and the symptoms of stress.”

Beat the Booze, a book co-authored by Edmund Tirbutt, is aimed at the general population. But after working for Legal & General as a marketing analyst, and as a financial journalist and insurance consultant, Tirbutt is convinced that the insurance industry is particularly affected by a stress-related drink culture.

“When I worked in the insurance industry in the 1980s, it was perfectly acceptable at lunchtime to go to the pub and drink as much as you could handle. It was all part of doing the job,” the 50-year-old says. “It still has a drink culture and it’s a stressful job. But it’s just a question of breaking the spiral before it gets out of control.”

Tirbutt, who battled alcohol addiction but has been teetotal for over 21 years, believes all companies have a certain percentage of employees with drink problems. With alcohol as the likely cause for up to one in 20 cases of work absenteeism, according to the Health & Safety Executive, Tirbutt urges employers to consider the consequences of doing nothing.

“Companies should have policies on this, and unhealthy drinking should be treated as a medical condition. Attitudes over what’s acceptable do change, for example drink driving.”

Meanwhile, research from global human resources consultancy BlessingWhite has revealed that European financial workers fall below the global average for being happy and productive in their jobs.

Only 21% were fully engaged, meaning they combined maximum contribution with maximum job satisfaction, compared to over 30% globally.

More alarmingly, almost one in five respondents categorised themselves as disengaged, meaning they feel discontented or unproductive. And when added to those who are crashing and burning, meaning they are unhappy but still reasonably hard-working, a third of European banking and finance sector workers are characterised by a lack of dynamism in, and enthusiasm for, their job. Globally, the average is just one fifth.

Tom Barry, European managing director of BlessingWhite, says: “The pressure is on within the banking and finance sector at the moment, but our research shows that European financial sector workers are not relishing the challenge of responding.

“With the current uncertainties in this sector and recent job cuts, it is more important than ever to retain and engage talented staff. This can only be achieved through strong, values-driven leadership at all levels. Finance sector managers must be prepared to take this leadership challenge personally and drive engagement and inspire employees through their own convictions and beliefs.”

While stress afflicts the insurance industry’s own workers, the condition also provides brokers with an opportunity to increase sales.

Insurance for critical illness, income protection or private medical insurance are options, but are expensive and can be tough to sell.

Another option is a health cash plan, which provides payments towards everyday healthcare requirements such as optical or dental care. It can also provide emotional support for those suffering from stress.

For example, HealthSure offers a 24-hour counselling helpline and face-to-face counselling through First Assist, as well as an occupational health benefit.

With sickness absence costing companies an average of £659 per employee per year, and stress and alcohol as a major reason for sickness and absenteeism, HealthSure says its services can help employers get their employees back to work faster.

David Wilson, intermediary manager for HealthSure, says: “A lot of employers are talking about risk and liability insurance, and employee wellness is another area where they should protect themselves. This provides another reason for brokers to talk to them about health cash plans.”

Employee assistance programmes, which include services like counselling, are becoming increasingly popular among employers. The Employee Assistance Professionals Association (EAPA) is the independent professional body for the assistance programmes and represents professionals concerned with employee assistance, psychological health and well being in the UK.

Its services include financial tips. But Eric Marshall, chairman of EAPA, says stress is usually the underlying issue. “For example, people will phone and say they’re having a difficult time managing their household budget. But often, it will turn out they’re drinking at the pub because of problems at home or at work, and that’s why they have no money. So we help them in different ways,” he says.

With the government’s increase on alcohol and cigarette tax in the last Budget and an increasing onus on employers to provide health support for employees, brokers and insurers should be aware of issues surrounding stress and addiction. It could be an increasingly relevant area in their personal lives, but also a prime business opportunity.