For financial advisers, there is often pressure to be strong and in control. Clients look to advisers to protect and guide them in times of stress so there's a need to be seen as firm, steady and reliable.
But appearing to be strong comes with its own risks. According to a recent PwC report, Creating a Mentally Healthy Workplace, the financial and insurance sector has one of the highest overall rates of mental health conditions in Australia. One third of people employed in our industry will experience a mental health condition in any 12 month period.
Defining mental health
Contrary to traditional opinion, you don't have to have a full-scale mental illness to experience mental health problems. Depression and anxiety are the most common forms of mental illness in Australia with more than three million people living with one of these conditions. Untreated, these conditions can become debilitating. But like any illness, early recognition and treatment can not only result in a complete cure; you can also come out of it stronger.
Psychologist Kasia Gordon, of Cause Effect Psychology, told a recent training seminar that research has demonstrated a strong link between long term stress and anxiety and depression. In industries where people work long hours and alcohol is a normal part of social interaction, depression and anxiety rates are invariably higher.
In the insurance and finance industry, anxiety is the most commonly reported problem among employees, though symptoms may be compounded through poor "self-management" strategies, such as the use of alcohol and drugs (either illicit or over-the-counter), which may then lead to dependency problems and other health complaints.
Kasia said it was important to distinguish between mental health issues, which are often a temporary, common reaction to stressful life events, and mental illness issues with clinically diagnosable conditions with symptoms that affect a person's ability to function across work, social and personal settings.
Women are more likely to report mental health and mental illness conditions to medical and health professionals, which is often reflected in the statistics that show higher rates of anxiety and depression in female populations. Suicide rates are approximately three times higher for Australian males than females. Given a range of societal stereotypes and more independent coping styles, males are often less proactive in seeking consultation for mental health and mental illness issues with medical professionals such as their GP. These figures are alarming.
Keeping yourself mentally fit
While awareness of mental health has risen significantly over the last decade, we still need to find ways to act on that awareness.
- Foster an open workplace. Open workplaces should be fostered where mental health is treated in the same way as physical health. Asking a colleague who seems to be struggling whether they are ok is simple, easy, and can provide a much needed opening to ask for help.
- Self-check. It's critical to self-check from time to time — especially when you're under stress and feel you're not coping. If you're having trouble concentrating, being late, struggling to make decisions, drinking more, or feeling on-edge or more tired than usual, don't ignore it. If these symptoms persist for more than two weeks, it is a sign to ask for help.
- Have coping strategies. In our industry, where dealing with clients' problems can be stressful, it is important to have coping strategies to keep our minds healthy. This could involve meditation, exercise, talking to someone you trust — whatever works for you. Look for something that takes the focus off yourself and your work, and gives your mind some time out to recover. Routines like shutting off your work emails at a particular time each night can also help.
Broaching the subject
Raising the subject of mental health can be tricky. It is all too easy to avoid asking the hard questions, or rationalising that you're not the right person to talk with someone about their personal issues. But in many cases, people suffering from these conditions may be desperately looking for an opening to ask for help.
- Use your people skills. As TAL claims expert services manager, Karen Hunt told the seminar, asking the question doesn't label people or cause the problem, as long as it is done gently and with rapport. Telling someone with depression to "cheer up" as Evan Jackson of the Black Dog Institute so aptly put it, is like telling someone with cancer to "get better".
- Observe and use behavioral statements. If you notice someone who may not be coping, a statement such as "you're sounding really tired, have you been sleeping ok?" or "you don't seem yourself today, is everything all right?" can serve as a non-confrontational way to open up a discussion. But you can also simply ask if they're ok.
- Listen. As an adviser you may feel ill-equipped to make judgments on a clients' mental health, but you're not there to diagnose them. Your role is to give them an opening, to listen, and if they need help, suggest they talk to their GP or someone else who can help them professionally.
Brisbane-based adviser Don Fessey, managing director of Insuraplan, brought psychologist Kasia Gordon in initially to work with his staff on the mental health and mental illness faced by clients. But he soon saw benefits for his business as well.
"We started off talking about dealing with clients, but to do that properly your own house needs to be in order," he says.
The sessions went a long way towards de-stigmatising the issue of mental health and helping staff to understand that good mental health is just like good physical health — something that you need to work on.
"It's just like me going to see an osteopath regularly because I sit in a chair all day," says Fessey. "That's no different to having someone to talk to if you're not coping with an issue."
He says staff have also benefitted from having a better understanding of the difference between mental health and mental illness, and dealing with clients who may be suffering from poor mental health or mental illness.
"Our job isn't to diagnose, but to listen, learn, and pass them on to a professional who can help them," he says.
Craig Parker is general manager of Affinia Financial Advisers.