Michael McKiernan
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Bumps in life | Canadian Insurance
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Bumps in life

When former Zurich Insurance CEO Martin Senn took his life last May, it sent shockwaves through the global insurance industry.

The 59-year-old shot himself at his family’s holiday home in the Swiss Alps, just six months after he departed the firm on sour terms following a series of profit warnings and an aborted takeover of U.K. based rival RSA Insurance.

Senn’s death carried particular resonance since it followed the suicide of another top Zurich executive, finance head Pierre Wauthier, just a couple of years earlier.

For Brad Shantz, the CEO of Vancouver-based Shaw Sabey, the spate of deaths brought back unpleasant memories. Early in his career, his own workplace at a large international brokerage was shaken by two employee suicides in relatively quick succession.

“It’s very tragic and very impactful, obviously,” Shantz says. “To me, it’s not something with the insurance business, per se. One of the guys who worked with me had a lot of personal stuff going on. There’s always a bunch of stuff you don’t get to see.

“But I think attitudes are changing, and businesses are realizing they need to do something to make sure they are places where people feel comfortable dealing with the bumps in life, even if those bumps are coming from outside of the day-to-day work environment,” Shantz adds.

A suicide note left by Wauthier reportedly described his demoralization at the aggressive management style used by Zurich leadership at the time. But Angus Thompson, a former vice-president of the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention, cautions against drawing definitive conclusions on particular workplaces or industry sectors on the basis of a cluster of suicides.

Such outbreaks are not unusual and often fail to reach the level of statistical significance, Thompson explains. Still, there’s also “an increased danger of ignoring them” altogether, he adds.

“I think it’s foolish to just wait for the statisticians to decide whether you’ve got a real suicide contagion, or whatever else you might call it, going on. In most cases, you would get some sort of investigation,” Thompson says.

A recent study led by Thompson in his current position as research associate at the Edmonton-based Institute of Health Economics found that Canadian businesses, and financial services companies in particular, have good reason to worry about the mental health of their employees. Released in 2011, the Alberta Survey of Addictive Behaviours and Mental Health in the Workforce found 17.9% of respondents endured “extreme stress” in the workplace. The survey grouped workers in the finance, insurance and real estate fields together, where an even higher proportion (23.2%) reported extreme stress on the job.

“That’s a very high number, when you think it’s one in every four or five people, and quite a few others also said they experienced moderate stress,” Thompson says.

The numbers don’t surprise Shantz, who says brokerages’ heavy emphasis on commission-based compensation can lead to unpredictable income and potential cyclical difficulties depending on the overall health of the market.

“When you’re trying to provide for your family and pay your mortgage, that can cause a certain level of stress. Having had exposure to other sectors, I’m not sure it’s any worse compared to banking or property development, but every industry has its own pressures,” Shantz says.

In Vancouver, where Shaw Sabey has its headquarters, younger employees face the additional challenge of finding a place to live in a notoriously unaffordable city. And a predicted demographic crunch in the insurance world at large could soon make things worse, according to Shantz. With baby boomers over-represented in the ranks of insurance-related businesses, they’ll leave a large talent hole when they vacate top positions en masse in the next decade or so, he says.

“There’s going to be a large sea change in leadership, and a lot of people are going to get accelerated into positions they haven’t had an opportunity to grow into,” Shantz says. “I suspect that will lead to a lot of anxiety.”

But the generation gap in insurance is a double-edged sword, according to Stéphane Cantin of Gradient Solutions. While older workers are more inclined to keep their heads down and try to push through difficult times for fear of appearing weak, younger ones are more likely to openly discuss their own difficulties and explore alternative work arrangements that could alleviate them, he says.

Companies are realizing that giving people training in how to better manage their stress and their time is definitely an investment.

“For the younger generations, it’s all about balance. They want their four-day week, and they want to work from home. I think, more and more, the industry is starting to realize the work will get done,” says Cantin. Cantin created his own stress management program after falling ill in 2009 in the face of a series of personal and professional setbacks.

“I had two kids, and the youngest one was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. We were in the financial crisis as well, so it was a very hard year. I got sick and, afterwards, I thought something had to change,” he says.

In October, Cantin addressed the Insurance Brokers Association of Ontario’s annual convention in Toronto in a seminar entitled “Relax: Managing Stress at Work,” giving attendees pointers on how to let go of problems that are beyond their control and concentrate on finding help for those they can do something about. He says he’s found a receptive audience for his message in the insurance field.

“It’s still a work in progress, but nobody wants to have someone off on sick leave because they’re burned out, because it’s so costly,” Cantin says. “Companies are realizing that giving people training in how to better manage their stress and their time is definitely an investment.”

As a group benefits provider, The Co-operators has the perfect vantage point from which to view the financial toll mental health problems can take on businesses in all sectors of the economy, according to Maureen Gillespie, vice-president of HR.

“The trend has been for more and more medical leaves and long-term disability claims related to mental health,” she says.

As a result, The Co-operators has made a concerted effort to champion mental health issues for at least the last two years. It’s sponsoring external projects such as BroTalk, a helpline aimed at young males in need of professional support, as well as implementing internal initiatives, such as training for management to better identify employees in need of help.

“How to distinguish between work performance issues and mental health problems, and how to have conversations about the kinds of support that are available; that’s a big aspect of our training,” Gillespie says.

Although it’s still too soon to measure what kind of impact the new focus on mental health has had, Gillespie says all the feedback she’s received so far has been positive.

17.9%
percentage of respondents who endured “extreme stress” in the workplace

Source: Alberta Survey of Addictive Behaviours and Mental Health in the Workforce

“It seems like everyone has a story to tell about themselves or someone they know and love. We’ve been pleasantly surprised that people have been so open,” she says. “You often hear about workplaces being the problem—whether it’s because of high stress, long hours and large demands. Our strategy is to turn that around and say that workplaces can be the solution by providing a pathway to positive mental health.”

Gillespie says the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s National Standard for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace, released in 2013, provides a good template for companies of all sizes seeking to improve their approach to mental health among workers.

The Great-West Life Centre for Mental Health in the Workplace played a role in the development of the voluntary guidelines, and Great-West Life is currently participating in a case study to test its effectiveness.

“The beauty of the standard is, while it’s clear about what needs to be done to protect psychological health and safety, it’s flexible about how it gets done,” says Mary Ann Baynton, the centre’s program director.

Michelle Steinowicz, vice-president of client strategy at Morneau Shepell, says Canadian companies tend to be ahead of the game compared with those in other nations when it comes to bringing discussions about mental health into the mainstream.

“A lot of our clients are taking action to educate people in the workplace and to reduce the stigma around mental health. That’s a particularly big thing, because, otherwise, people won’t access the care that’s available. And the earlier they get help, the better the outcomes are going to be,” Steinowicz says. “The companies that are most successful take a multi-pronged approach. You can’t just have one thing. You need a variety, with an overarching communication strategy, because if you don’t make sure your employees understand what’s available to them, you can have the best tools and resources in the world, but they won’t get used.”

At Shaw Sabey, openness is encouraged, and HR is in frequent contact with employees to ensure no warning signs for mental health problems are missed, according to Shantz. The firm has also contracted a performance coach workers can approach to help maximize their potential.

“It’s very different from when I grew up in the business, when you were given a confidential phone number for the employee assistance program and that was it. We’re trying to be proactive with people, rather than waiting for problems to come up,” Shantz says. “Insurance is an interesting business, because there’s no inventory or stock or anything. It’s all about relationships and people, and all of our assets leave at the end of every day and go home. That means having an appropriate workplace culture and the appropriate safety net for dealing with life challenges is crucial. If you don’t get that right, you start losing people, and then you’re done.”

Michael McKiernan is a legal affairs writer.

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Copyright © 2016 Transcontinental Media G.P. This article first appeared in the September 2016 edition of Canadian Insurance Top Broker magazine