VH: What evidence have you seen at Sesame that mortgage brokers are under strain/have been more stressed than usual during the pandemic?
Michele Golunska: In response to the pandemic, we saw an increase in calls to our helpdesk from brokers asking for assistance. This covered a wide range of needs, from understanding changes in government support to helping brokers navigate their way through the high level of changes in product criteria and affordability that were taking place. This was in addition to other information we were gathering, such as product providers telling us about an increasing number of customer claims due to mental health issues, with more people suffering from higher levels of anxiety and stress through this challenging period.
What this was telling us is that if more of our customers are dealing with mental health issues, then it’s likely that more mortgage brokers will be dealing with these same issues too. Health and wellbeing, home schooling, social restrictions, worries about cashflow and workplace issues – are all things that can lead to increased levels of anxiety. Some of these issues might only be short term, but it will still have an impact.
VH: As a company, what have you done to help deal with the stress or ease the situation?
To help firms trade safely and look after their staff and customers through the pandemic, Sesame Bankhall Group launched its Covid-19 Adviser Support Hub in March 2020 to provide advisers with a wide range of practical information and useful tools. The first thing we wanted advisers to focus on was their personal wellbeing and this was therefore the first section on the Hub. It contains hints and tips to help advisers and their customers to stay healthy – both physically and mentally. This includes support articles, guides, and resources to help advisers and their customers to feel more at ease about the uncertainty created by the pandemic.
The success of the Hub exceeded our expectations and led to the development of a follow-up Bounce Back Hub, which was launched in May 2020. Both hubs have so far been viewed over 40,000 times by advisers from across the financial services industry. As a result of this success and the adviser engagement it’s created, a decision has been taken to integrate this content and the topics covered into future adviser support activity. This will ensure there’s a continuing presence and home for this valuable content.
VH: How much obligation do you feel to support your brokers?
We feel that we have a duty and responsibility to raise awareness of the challenges brokers face on a day-to-day basis, many of which were amplified during the pandemic. Attitudes in society have undoubtedly changed to a point where mental health is viewed by many in the same way that they see a physical impairment. Something that needs to be understood and treated, rather than ignored. And certainly not something that’s seen as a sign of weakness. Coronavirus and the period we’re living through has brought all of this into sharper focus by heightening the issues that were already there. At Sesame Bankhall Group we’ve ensured that brokers have access to the right support when required, and that’s something we’ve been working hard to put in place through various initiatives.
VH: Have there been any cases where you felt the need to refer them for help or extra support?
In April 2020, we took steps to enhance our health and wellbeing support for our Sesame members. We funded the cost of member support services with the specialist independent provider Care first. This is an assistance service that our group already offers to all our employees. This move provided our members with personal access to helpful material, along with a team of professionally qualified counsellors who offer expert health and wellbeing support.
The initiative with Care first was just one part of a much wider package of support. We’ve worked closely with advisers throughout the last year, circulating information on financial support packages, and running working groups and clinics to understand the common root causes of anxiety and stress within our member and client base. This includes detailed work with some of our member firms to understand their business solvency and key financial triggers, assisting with the creation of action plans to improve the financial resilience of their firm.
We’ve also run sessions with advisers supporting several key topics which bring out struggles connected to mental health. For example, hosting an industry session for women that included a discussion about the menopause. This reflects our view about the importance of supporting and contributing to the sharing of lived experiences.
We’ve also bolstered our support for advisers in areas such as vulnerable customers. This issue was already high up on the industry’s agenda, but it’s been heightened further by the Covid-19 pandemic. The impact of the crisis has pushed more people into the potentially vulnerable category. It means that an adviser’s role in making sure that clients make the right long-term financial decisions is more important than ever. It also serves to highlight the steps that advisory firms need to take to ensure that both their customers and their business are protected.
VH: In a partnership/business arrangement like the one Sesame has with its ARs, what part does mental health play?
A higher level of mental health claims tells us that more people in society are suffering. It’s therefore about people feeling comfortable talking about these issues. Financial advisers are just one business community amongst many in the UK, who have the same personal and business concerns as everyone else. However, what’s significant is that advisers are looking after their customers too through, and as we emerge from, this challenging time. More advisers have worked remotely due to the coronavirus crisis, posing initial challenges but also opportunities for how advisory firms operate. It’s very important to get the balance right to ensure advisers take care of themselves and their clients, as well as continuing to trade safely as a business.
Across our industry and society in general, the desire to understand the issues and challenges around mental health has developed significantly. This includes recognition of heightened skills and the creation of safe environments to deal with these delicate issues, which help to open-up conversations rather than close them down. Only by understanding some of these issues better can we provide educated insight, skills and resources that are required to help people access the assistance they need. The one thing we know for certain is that mental health will become a bigger part of the conversation going forward – between all of us.