There’s a gathering storm on the horizon. Reports of issues we’ve never heard of before abound; coronaphobia, post pandemic stress disorder, post lockdown anxiety. These come on top of increases in more familiar issues, such as work- related stress. It’s important to put all of this in perspective; not to question the validity of such issues, rather to ensure we don’t medicalise what are effectively normal stress reactions to adverse events or circumstances.
Such reactions – where the situation could be improved by removing the stressor – do not necessarily constitute group income protection claims: every claim is different and assessed individually in the relevant context. However, there’s a strong case for making better use of embedded value services; equipping individuals, equipping line managers and equipping HR in their legal duty to prevent injury occurring, specifically with regard to stress that is workplace or employment related.
The fact that new ‘conditions’ can be simply created within the catch-all realm of mental health demonstrates the complexities involved. Researchers have identified three components of Covid-19 specific anxiety: constant worry, which causes symptoms like palpitations, change in appetite, sleep problems and dizziness, preoccupation with worries and fears, and avoidant behaviours – all of which are directly related to getting or spreading Covid-19.
Mental health experts are describing this as an emerging phenomenon. For example, GPs are predicting a “huge surge” in patients with post- traumatic stress disorder due to Covid-19. And the ONS reported last year that almost half – 49.6 per cent – of the population were experiencing high levels of anxiety. Plus, come September, when furlough ends, businesses – and SMEs in particular – are going to have to make some tough decisions.
These issues come on top of having to ensure that workplaces are Covid safe and that homeworkers as well as those in office buildings and work premises are happy, healthy and motivated.
In short, it’s not only employees that have things to worry about – in terms of financial and mental wellbeing – SME owners and leaders have a lot on their plates too.
The role of the insurer in the context of group income protection is about more than paying claims. It is also to help people to preserve and / or retain functional ability to avoid further physical and psychological deterioration. Insurers, intermediaries and employers have a strong role to play in helping to fill the gap in public sector support when it comes to many of the anxiety and stress-related problems the UK is seeing now. The public sector simply doesn’t have the funds or resources. And the £500 million recovery plan recently announced by government is focused on those with serious and long-term mental health issues, the kind of problems that don’t go away when the stressor is removed.
Similarly, with Long Covid, referral to multi- disciplinary services via the NHS’s specialist clinics is only available from 12 weeks onwards, according to NICE guidelines.
At which stage, issues will likely require deeper and broader therapeutic input. Long term absence is therefore much more likely.
Group income protection (IP) comes with valuable support as standard. Long Covid support packages are also now embedded in some group IP propositions, available at point of claim for insured individuals and after 4-6 weeks’ absence.
The key is to ensure that the right help gets to the right people at the right time. For this, a more targeted people-centric approach is required, one that nurtures a culture of self-care and support. There also needs to be more joined-up thinking across HR, Health & Safety and Occupational Health to act and intervene where potential hot spots are identified.
Appropriate support or interventions might include a service provided by group IP, a change to an individual’s circumstances to help remove or lesson the stressor, a change to HR policy or practice, or all of these combined.
Unfortunately, employers cannot achieve this without insights into employees’ state of mind and circumstances. This involves improved two- way communication and trust. And they certainly cannot achieve this alone. Support from insurers and intermediaries is no longer a nice to have, it’s essential to productivity and sustainability; not only for clients, but also for society.
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