The Covid-19 pandemic firmly put mental health awareness on employers’ maps, however one insurance professional is proactively seeking to combat the rising risk of suicide

By Editor Katie Scott

At last month’s Broker CEO Forum event, attendees shared that many insurance businesses have “upped the ante” around staff mental health and welfare as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic because there is “a real fear” around “burning our people out”.

Employee burnout and stress is just one marker on the sliding scale of mental health and wellness.

At the sharp end of the mental health see-saw, however, is suicide – something QBE Insurance’s cyber safety specialist for Europe Alice Hendy knows all too well as she faces the one-year anniversary of her brother Josh’s death tomorrow.

Katie Scott_bw_path

Katie Scott

Josh – Hendy’s only sibling – died by suicide at the age of 21. Hendy believes her brother was one of many people last year who fell “victim” to the isolating effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, which drove so many people online in search of social connections while in-person distancing was required.

Speaking to Hendy last Friday, she told me that the risk of suicide is particularly pertinent within the financial services sector.

She said: “This is something which impacts everybody, but particularly the financial services industry is an industry that struggles and suffers.

“There’s often a lot of pressure on workers. There’s often deadlines to meet and expectations to meet – that comes with challenges. That coupled with the Covid pandemic and people slowly starting to get back into the office is causing a lot of anxiety among staff.

“The key point here for me is you never know what is going on inside someone’s mind. You could have somebody who is the life and soul of the party, who is really struggling and you’ll never know. This really can impact anyone and everyone and that’s scary.”

Call for help

Following her brother’s death last year, Hendy made a promise to herself on Christmas Day “to stop anyone feeling like my brother did and that [suicide] was his only option. And to stop any other sisters waking up and opening their eyes in the morning and feeling like I do”.

This commitment saw her tap into her IT and cyber expertise to form charity R;pple – the semi colon within the brand name showcasing the international symbol of surviving suicide. Hendy formally launched the charity on 10 September, tying into World Suicide Prevention Day.

R;pple is an internet browser extension that is currently able to be downloaded on Google Chrome and Microsoft Edge – Hendy noted the tool will be available on Firefox and Safari by the end of the year too.

It works by intercepting individuals who use internet browsers to research death by suicide or self-harm topics. The extension has thousands of words, phrases and questions plugged into its back end functionality, so if someone searches for material that could be used to plan suicide, the R;pple tool is triggered.

Upon being triggered, a short breathing exercise immediately appears on screen, to help the individual “reset what they are thinking”, Hendy explained.

Once completed, a “message of hope and a selection of different mental health resources” loads – this includes phone call details for the Samaritans, text details for mental health support service Shout as well as contact details for webchats, apps and forums, enabling those experiencing poor mental health to seek support in whatever medium they feel most comfortable with.

These details can also be downloaded and saved to users’ computers, enabling them to access this information at a later date for continued support, as and when needed.

The recommendations provided via R;pple are based on evidence, Hendy reassured me – she explained that she worked with mental health professionals, clinicians, lived experience panels, professors and mental health charities to compile the tool.

For Hendy, the interception provided by R;pple is vital. When picking up Josh’s laptop from the police following his death, she found that he had been looking at “horrendous stuff” on the internet about how to take his own life – he had even been given tips and encouragement from other internet users, she reported.

According to research published in September this year by software company Semrush, searches for suicide methods have increased by 50% over the last two years, while internet searches for suicidal thoughts have grown by 23% over the same time period.

“I wanted to utilise my skill set to intercept anyone else who might be looking at similar things to what Josh was looking at,” Hendy told me.

Role of the insurance sector

In terms of results so far, Hendy and her team of volunteers have now seen R;pple downloaded around 80,000 times.

Heart-wrenchingly, Hendy has also “had 22 people directly approach me and tell me that they’re still here because of the tool”.

Although the tool is currently free for schools, colleges, universities, parents and individuals, employers can pay to have R;pple downloaded on their employees’ computers, ensuring that staff have access to the unique support that R;pple provides.

Hendy’s own employer QBE has downloaded R;pple onto 4,500 staff computers in the UK.

“By putting in this additional layer of mental health support, just in case somebody needs it, might just stop a colleague from taking their own life,” she said.

Hendy explained that this income from organisations is vital for her to continue developing R;pple – for example, adapting it to be used on mobiles and tablets. And she is looking to her own industry for support here.

“Mental health is slowly starting to make its way up the agenda and that’s a good thing to do because the Covid-19 pandemic has made the issue of mental health worse, but also has really just shone a spotlight on it as well,” Hendy noted.

In my mind, the discussion at October’s Broker CEO Forum highlighted staff mental wellbeing as a priority for insurance businesses and backing a charity such as R;pple empowers firms to put their money where their mouth is and ensure a myriad of support is available for their employees as we navigate this post-pandemic period into a ‘new normal’.