Vanessa Sallows: ‘I am passionate about helping people return to work’

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Vannessa Sallows interview

Following Mental Health Awareness Week, Vanessa Sallows, Claims & Governance Director, Group Protection at Legal & General, talks to HRreview about the ethical and strategic importance of mental health awareness in the workplace, her work on raising awareness, the misconceptions around Group Income Protection (GIP), and much more that HR should know.

What is your background and your role at Legal & General?

Before joining Legal & General, I worked in the NHS and have over 30 years’ experience in public services and the protection market. As Claims & Governance Director at Legal & General, I am responsible for the claims and rehabilitation teams and have oversight of the medical underwriting philosophy within our Group Protection business. I am passionate about the psychology of work, what prevents individuals from working during periods of ill-health and helping people return to work. As such, I have helped developed our proactive early intervention and rehabilitation approach when assessing claims. Mental health is another topic which is hugely important to me and is a big reason as to why I helped lead the implementation of Mental Health First Aiders across Legal & General’s offices and developed our mental health ‘Not A Red Card’ campaign.

Why did you decide to launch the Not A Red Card Campaign?

When it comes to mental health issues in the UK, many people still suffer in silence. Our own research has shown that only four per cent of employees who have experienced depression and five per cent who have experienced anxiety would feel comfortable speaking about their mental health with a manager. It’s a worrying statistic and may come as a bit of a surprise to many employers, not least because over three-quarters (78 per cent) of the managing directors and HR managers we surveyed were confident that their employees would feel comfortable talking about mental health issues with a company representative. It’s an important area to get right. Most employees would like to have a workplace where they can speak openly about mental illness if they choose to – and employers no doubt want the same. However, there is clearly more work to be done in this area and this is one of biggest drivers behind us launching the Not A Red Card campaign to raise awareness, provide education and encourage action around reducing the stigma of mental health in the workplace. Our campaign features sports personalities who are also mental health advocates in order to let employers and employees know that talking about mental health is “not a red card offence”.

Why do you think Mental Health Awareness Week is important?

Mental Health Awareness week is the perfect opportunity for businesses to evaluate whether they’re doing enough to look after their employees’ mental wellbeing. That said, it’s important to remember that mental ill health can affect anybody at any time, so these conversations can’t be confined to just one week. Encouraging people to have open, honest discussions about mental health is vital for ensuring that individuals at all levels of the business receive the support they need, when they need it. Speaking openly about mental health needs to be the norm for every business, every day, so that employees feel comfortable talking about this subject at any time.

Why is good mental health in the workplace so important?

The impact of poor mental health is a significant problem for businesses. The 2017 Government-backed Thriving at Work report estimated that mental ill-health costs employers between £33 billion and £42 billion annually in the UK alone. The truth is that most people spend the majority of their time at work, so businesses have a vital role to play in protecting the wellbeing of their employees and creating mentally healthy workplaces where people can flourish. The benefits of investing in employees’ health and wellbeing include a healthier, more engaged and productive workforce who feel valued by their employer, so mental wellbeing is not only good for individuals but also for businesses.

What does L&G do for mental health in the workplace?

At Legal & General, our employees’ wellbeing is paramount, so investing in a solid mental health strategy is important to us. We provide a comprehensive benefits package that includes reduced membership costs for gym facilities, and we also offer free, healthy breakfasts at all our sites for early starters. Employees also benefit from Group Income Protection (GIP), which gives them peace of mind about their financial wellbeing should they need to take time off from work due to illness. In addition, we offer Private Medical Insurance (PMI), a cycle to work scheme, access to Occupational Health, childcare vouchers, flexible working, and more. We firmly believe that encouraging a physically healthy lifestyle will help our employees to stay mentally healthy as well. Legal & General also has 150 trained Mental Health First Aiders who possess the skills and confidence to recognise a mental health issue, and who also know when to involve a professional. Being a member of the City Mental Health Alliance is also something we’re incredibly proud of, as it gives us the opportunity to spread best practice and share effective tips, techniques and interventions with others.

How does group protection play a role in supporting people’s mental health?

Extended absences from work, whatever the cause, can have a devastating effect on employees, since most have very little to fall back if their income suddenly stops. Our Deadline to the Breadline report revealed that, on average, employees in the UK could run out of money in just 32 days, with 23 per cent of employees admitting they do not save any of their income each month.  As a result, having to take time off from work due to unforeseen circumstances can have an enormous impact on an employee’s mental health, due the stress this can cause. Mental health issues have been the top cause of claims on Legal & General’s GIP policies since 1999, which proves that people rely on these policies to support them whilst taking time out for health reasons. Equally, many policies provide the business with effective absence management in the event someone does fall ill, with procedures in place to ensure early intervention and provide a successful return to work when the time is right. With so many benefits on offer, GIP is a ‘win win’ situation for businesses and its employees.

What are the biggest misconceptions of GIP?

Despite the invaluable benefits GIP brings to businesses and its employees, misconceptions do still exist. Many people still believe that the cost of GIP is a barrier. According to Swiss Re, almost a tenth of employers believe that GIP will increase their payroll costs by 10 per cent or more, but in reality, the typical cost is just one per cent to two per cent – and can even be as low as 0.25 per cent for limited term policies. Other misconceptions around GIP tend to stem from a lack of education, which means that the full benefits of these policies are often underestimated or misunderstood. In addition, as with most types of insurance, there is a certain amount of denial to overcome as well: few employers want to think about the fact that a long-term illness is bound to affect somebody, at some point, within the business – but that doesn’t make it any less likely.

Do you think supporting mental health places HR departments at the heart of business? Is mental health a matter of business strategy?

Mental health is an important issue for everyone – from the Board and the HR department to managers and staff. So, if we want to see a future where the stigma around mental health no longer exists, it will take more than just the HR department to encourage change. For lasting change to occur, every department in every business will need to work together to foster open, healthy working environments.  There is no better time than now for businesses to put the wellbeing of their staff at the heart of everything they do. Employers must tackle these issues from the top down and champion the need for mental health support services across the business. A clear, structured wellbeing strategy, combined with continued investment in Mental Health First Aid programmes and ongoing training and support, will be vital. Unless companies commit to making their employee’s wellbeing a priority, they risk losing talent, lowering productivity and ultimately preventing the business from developing and thriving.

What are your future plans?

We have made great strides in raising awareness of mental health through our Not A Red Card campaign and within Legal & General itself, we now have more mental health first aiders and mental health champions than ever before. And, we’re excited for what we have planned in this year as we continue working to encourage businesses to take action around supporting their employees’ mental wellbeing. To that end, we’ll also be continuing our commitment to deliver tangible actions which employers can implement to help adhere to the core and enhanced standards set out in the Government-backed Thriving at Work report.

Interested in wellbeing and mental health in the workplace? We recommend the Workplace Wellbeing and Stress Forum 2019 and Mental Health Awareness training day.

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About Aphrodite Papadatou

Aphrodite is a creative writer and editor specialising in publishing and communications. She is passionate about undertaking projects in diverse sectors. She has written and edited copy for media as varied as social enterprise, art, fashion and education. She is at her most happy owning a project from its very conception, focusing on the client and project research in the first instance, and working closely with CEOs and Directors throughout the consultation process. Much of her work has focused on rebranding; messaging and tone of voice is one of her expertise, as is a distinctively unique writing style in my most of her creative projects. Her work is always driven by the versatility of language to galvanise image and to change perception, as it is by inspiring and being inspired by the wondrous diversity of people with whom paths she crosses cross!

Aphrodite has had a variety of high profile industry clients as a freelancer, and previously worked for a number of years as an Editor and Journalist for Prospects.ac.uk.

Aphrodite is also a professional painter.

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