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Blog: How support services can help tackle mental illness

Andy King, 09 April 2019

Mental illness can be both all-consuming and difficult to spot. At times of great stress, we all need a little support…

Woman preparing to run

A mental illness may not be immediately obvious or visible, like a sprained ankle or cut finger. How can we tell if somebody has a mental health issue, and soon enough in the process to be able to do something about it?

The psychology of introspection – the examination of one’s thoughts and feelings – is a difficult thing to do when that mental state may already be confused. One may ask ‘how have I reached this point’, and not know. Plus it’s easy to be judgmental about yourself.

This is particularly true in the workplace. After all, being open with colleagues requires showing vulnerability, which is hard enough even when work is at something closer to ‘normal’ stress levels.

But what if your place of work is experiencing a more difficult time than usual? Maybe workloads have increased or something has happened resulting in your entire team, department or company suffering from higher stress. 

This ‘new normal’ could herald strained working relationships, leading to people being less empathetic and understanding than usual. It can become a downward spiral. When everyone is in the same boat, how can you put your hand up and claim you’ve got it worse?

Ultimately there are no easy answers. We can’t rely on someone asking for help. According to what I’ve read, there are some common signs to look out for, such as lethargy, untidiness, excessive risk taking, disorganisation, and hyperactivity.

It’s important for employers to take the lead on this and work with workplace mental health champions – people who observe and actively engage with their colleagues (rather than simply posting their opinion in a blog – oops!)

People managers must also be able to spot the signs of mental illness. Might somebody who is uncharacteristically underperforming need help? Simply being told to pull their weight and meet targets is unlikely to improve the situation.

In the life insurance industry, there are many support services available to support your clients if they need any help.

These can include counselling support (or at the very least signposting a client to where they can find further support) and, crucially, these same services are available to clients’ families. Engaging with families as well as the policyholder can be very important.

It’s vital we – that’s us as providers and you as advisers – actively promote the availability of these services at the ‘point of sale’ and as an integral part of the policy. We are not here simply to pay out lump sums on bad news – we can help make living easier.

A final thought: In 1967 psychologists Holmes and Rahe undertook a study to identify the most stressful times in life and gave each a score. If a subject achieved more than 150 ‘life change units’ in any 12-month period, it meant, according to Holmes and Rahe, you were 30% more likely to develop a stress related illness.

It’s worth taking a look at their list of life events, and their scores. Going to prison, I noticed, was only 13 points higher than marriage! 

Andy King is a business account manager at Zurich