Should Group IP providers offer HR mediation services?

As group income protection providers continue to morph from insurance to service providers - now with the addition of dispute resolution - advisers need to ensure their corporate clients know what's available and helping them take full advantage, writes Suzanne Clarkson

As the problem of workplace-related stress shows no sign of abating, employment tribunals become more complex and State welfare benefits continue to be withdrawn, some group income protection (IP) providers are now adding independent arbitration to their armory, partnering with third-party experts to sort out deep-seated issues between employers and employees.

Mediators have been around a long time. First documented in Ancient Roman times, mediation might be likened to haggling: each side takes a position, argues for it and makes concessions to reach a compromise, with a little help from their independent friend. 

Get to the nub

Where the sometimes thorny issue of workplace-related stress and employee absence is concerned, this concept can be used to good effect to help identify the true root of the problem, helping all parties come to a mutually satisfactory conclusion.

Whilst in many cases the employee might be genuinely suffering from a mental health problem, experts claim that in a growing number of incidences the symptoms of anxiety experienced are a reaction to work-related issues, such as disputes with managers, bullying, work overload or being ill-equipped for the role or changes in the workplace.

In fact, 77% of employees say they have experienced symptoms of poor mental health at some point in their lives and 62% attributed their symptoms to work or said that work was a contributing factor, according to a recent national employee survey by Business in the Community entitled Mental Health at Work Report 2016.

Terry Hallam is senior consultant at Form Health (UK) Ltd, a company that provides HR mediation services under its platform (or brand) of Active Work Solutions (AWS), and works with reinsurers and the clients of group IP insurer Generali-UK. 

Over recent years, AWS's case emphasis has moved from chronic illnesses or accidents to work-related stress. Hallam explains: "We now estimate that over 70% of cases that are referred to us fall into this category.

"With the difficulty of obtaining clear cut medical evidence to support work-related stress claims and the cynicism that can follow from this, together with the complexities of employment law, it is perhaps no surprise that employers often take a more stand-off position and seem ready to move the perceived responsibility for handling the ensuing absences to the insurer." 

Sharing is caring

Group IP providers, meanwhile, are more than happy to be handed the responsibility of handling absences. They'd just like to hear about them very early on - from day one, ideally - and this is something on which many employers need much more advice, guidance and encouragement.

As mentioned earlier, group IP is not so much about an insurance payout these days. Although still a vital aspect of the product, income replacement is now somewhat preceded by the raft of so-called early intervention, or back to work support, services on offer: everything from access - via phone, digital or even face to face - to experts in health, wealth and happiness. 

This can include advice on debt and savings, childcare, eldercare, medical second opinions, stress counselling, bereavement counselling, personalised treatment pathways and access to expert support in the areas of mental health, musculoskeletal, cancer, chronic fatigue and pain…the list goes on.

All of these services can be tailored to need and insurers are very keen for employers to make use of them.

Who does what?

For the purposes of this article, we spoke to all the main group IP providers. Although all offer early intervention services, less than a handful offer HR mediation.

Paul Avis, marketing director at Canada Life, says that the insurer likes to hear about absences from day one. "

Once informed by the manager, supervisor or HR, we'll call the employee from day one to find out more about complex conditions such as stress and back pain. In the case of mental health, if the problem is clinical we'll first look at using services such as EAPs. If it's workplace-related, we'll alert the manager that this is the case and a claim won't be payable. 

"However, we can still offer help where the volume of referrals to EIS or claims warrants it. We might look at things like mediation training for managers or mental health awareness training. We've just started working with ACAS on mediation training. 

"ACAS also offers diagnostic visits to companies and insurers can help initiate the process."

Darren Michel, assistant claims manager at Generali-UK, also says that help is still available where a case of stress is found to be workplace-related rather than clinical. 

"If the claim isn't medically valid, we still like to try and help add value wherever possible. The employer may not have the tools to deal with such a situation, whereas we can offer a raft of services, training and support. Insurers are about so much more than paying claims these days."

Zurich's rehabilitation team focuses on "early resolution of communication issues," says Nick Homer, head of marketing management, corporate risk, at Zurich Assurance. "Where a need for mediation is identified we'll signpost the need."

Meanwhile, Aviva trains all its case managers in conflict resolution. "Should the need arise, they [our case managers] have the skills to sit down with an employee and their line manager or HR department and try to iron out any differences and create a return to work plan," says Jon Blackburn, clinical and rehabilitation services manager at Aviva.

Work is healthy

Return to work is the nirvana in most cases. Group Risk Development (GRiD), an industry group that aims to improve the uptake of group protection benefits in the UK, has called for support service benefits to be used much more by employers to help tackle some of the biggest causes of employee absence, such as workplace-related stress.

In its recent response to last year's joint Department of Work & Pensions and Department of Health's Green Paper on how to help people in Britain's workforce recover from illness and return to work, GRiD recommended a campaign by government to raise awareness among employers and employees that sickness benefits provided by the state are only a safety net and there is a definite need to make extra provision.

It remains to be seen whether this will come to pass but, in the meantime, industry experts suggest brokers have a role to play in raising awareness of the support that group IP can provide to both employers and employees.