By Naomi Grosman    |    16-minute read

In this issue we focus on the effects of remote work on the industry. In our first article, we look at how broker recruitment has continued during the pandemic, and we explore managing remote teams and onboarding new brokers without the benefit of in person networking and peer support. In our second article, the broker theme continues with Letters to a young insurance broker (an ode to Letters to a young poet) and looks at what a young broker can learn from an established one and the lessons from having experienced a hard market in the past. And finally, in our last article, we look at mental health in the workplace with Dr. Helen Ofosu, HR Consultant and Career Psychologist at I/O Advisory Services in Ottawa. Dr. Ofosu provides insights on how to spot and address employee mental health issues.

Remote Work Illustration

Unstoppable broker recruitment

“More than half the company has been hired during lockdown…we can’t hire fast enough.”―Danish Yusuf, CEO and founder of Zensurance

Despite pandemic-driven unemployment growth Canada-wide and a hard market, the insurance sector’s broker channel is growing, both with new entrants into the workforce and experienced brokers switching workplaces.

But as smooth as business operation transitions were last spring, the social fabric of workplaces continues to morph as lockdowns remain in place in many parts of the country.

“The social aspect of work has been tough,” said Danish Yusuf, CEO and founder of Zensurance. “It’s very different now to get to know colleagues and for new employees to never have met their peers in person.”

Yusuf started Zensurance to focus exclusively on selling commercial policies to small businesses. His background as software engineer led him to found the business with a technology company philosophy of empowering consumers to shop insurance when and how they want.

“We think of ourselves as a technology company that happens to be in the insurance space,” Yusuf said.

Despite pandemic-related difficulties and the compounding factor of the hard market, the online commercial insurance brokerage has not had recruitment issues — the company hired 68 people last year, he said.

“More than half the company has been hired during lockdown…we can’t hire fast enough.”

He said even during the first lockdown when the Registered Insurance Brokers of Ontario wasn’t licensing brokers for a period of time, Zensurance had new recruits working in administration roles.

“The demand for staff has skyrocketed,” Yusuf said. “It’s a hard market, premiums are up and it’s tough to get insurance so people are ‘shopping’ for insurance policies and then the pandemic drove even further shopping.”

Adam Mitchell, president of Whitby-based brokerage Mitchell and Whale Insurance Brokers Ltd., said Covid might have impacted recruitment somewhat but the company had been growing prior to the pandemic.

Mitchell bought the brokerage from his father’s estate in 2010. He describes it as “old but new” due to the fact that it’s a third generation family operation but relies on software and online marketing to grow in size. The company grew from two employees in 2010 to 68 staff today and from writing $2 million in premium to $40 million.

“We don’t have the same trouble hiring as others,” Mitchell said. “We are built to grow and we will always be hiring.”

He said while Mitchell and Whale brokers are adapting well to working remotely, it is unsettling not to fully fathom how the lack of in-person social interaction is impacting the team.

“Because of a recent survey, we know that for the most part our staff like being part of our team — they like and respect us, according to the feedback we have,” Mitchell said. “But I worry about the team’s mental health. What are they doing for friendships, are there hidden substance abuse issues and what is their home life like? These are all things that are difficult to pick up on.”

One indicator that staff are doing well at home is that the office is open to staff but only three team members have chosen to return.

“The majority of our staff don’t want to come in,” Mitchell said. “We don’t ask people to come into the office unless there are performance issues, if they feel they work better at the office, that option is open.”

He said the logistics of “flex work,” splitting work days between at-home and in-office, are difficult and it remains to be seen how it will be implemented post-pandemic but the overwhelming majority want the benefits that working from home provides.

The picture looks similar at Zensurance, its CEO said.

“It’s much easier to manage staff when it’s 100 per cent remote compared to partial and we will have to work through that but I don’t think we will ever go back to fully in office,” Yusuf said. “According to our internal surveys the broker side of our business wants to come in two to four days a week but the marketing, finance, and software teams want to come in one day a week.”

While recruiting itself hasn’t been a challenge, it is unclear what long-term effects the work-from-home environment will have on the onboarding and mentoring aspect of hiring.

“It’s impossible to replicate the full in-person work experience,” Yusuf said. “As CEO I sit with everyone else, hear what people have to say and am able to walk over and give feedback.”

He said the company is relying on remote means to give staff a social outlet.

Zensurance uses business communication platform Slack to randomly assign virtual coffee dates for staff to allow people from different teams to socialize. And every team gets a budget to have virtual lunches. There is an hour-long weekly get together every Friday and staff town halls every quarter.

“These social functions were already in place before the pandemic but the virtual aspect is new.” Yusuf said. “From a business operations perspective we have compensated with online quality control but there is something lost with casual run-ins. The virtual options don’t replace the in-person, after work socializing but we do what we can.”

Mitchell said mentoring won’t go anywhere, despite it maybe looking different in the future.

“There will be ways around lockdown restrictions, even if this all sticks people will find other ways,” he said, adding that it is clear that people still want to socialize in one form or another.

“When we were distributing staff Christmas gifts, people’s faces lit up during the drop off,” Mitchell said. “People want to socialize.”

Yusuf said Zensurance recognizes the value of staff meeting in person and the company will most likely introduce a social component to reflect that once it’s allowed.

“The company sees the value in people physically meeting each other,” he said. “It also takes a different skillset to work effectively without people around.”

Letters to a young insurance broker

“I had been told that if I can get through the first year as a broker in a hard market I’d be well trained — then the pandemic started during my second year as a broker.”― Jeremy Melanson, Broker, AA Munro

Selling insurance in a hard market is the only market environment with which Jeremy Melanson is familiar.

When he decided to become a broker two years ago, switching from his first career in construction, he was made well aware of how the hard market would influence his job.

“As far as the market goes, I was warned right off the bat that we are in a hard market and times were going to be tough,” Melanson said, personal lines broker at Nova Scotia-based brokerage AA Munro’s Digby office. “When I started I had no idea that rules had been less firm before the hard market. In my experience when you call an underwriter to make a request and get a ‘no’ response, that’s all you can do — it didn’t occur to me that in other times it can be different.”

Then came the pandemic and a whole slew of new challenges arose.

“I had been told that if I can get through the first year as a broker in a hard market I’d be well trained — then the pandemic started during my second year as a broker.”

He said the two-person office in Digby is open for the public by appointment only, which is a far cry from the level of face-to-face business he was doing prior to the pandemic.

“The level of in-person business varies…but we used to have an open door policy,” Melanson said.

He said because the brokerage serves an older population, adapting to new ways of business had its unique set of challenges.

“Many of our clients didn’t have anything set up online, such as banking or knowing how to do electronic signatures,” Melanson said. “Teaching that was not part of broker training but has become a normal part of the work routine now.”

He said the toughest challenges related to the hard market is not people’s reactions to price increases or coverage changes, it’s the repetitiveness that takes a toll.

“People just need an explanation and are compelled to ask and the price is the first thing they look for — but it’s always the same explanation,” Melanson said. “It isn’t necessarily difficult because we are in a hard market, the difficulty comes when you have to explain the same thing every day.”

Melanson considers himself lucky that he was recruited and trained prior to the pandemic. He had a year of going to social functions where he could meet other AA Munro staff (their customers are distributed across Nova Scotia, P.E.I. and New Brunswick) and some insurance company underwriters.

“I was just starting to get to know people an make connections,” he said. “But as difficult as it is…there’s a lot of support among staff and our clients — everyone has the understanding that this is how it has to be for now.”

However, he does feel like there is a social aspect on which he is missing out.

“There was an influx of people that came at a similar time I did and we have a lot of support,” Melanson said. “Prior to Covid it was normal to train with other, newer brokers and we are missing out on that because there is not much socializing outside of work.”

Team manager Tammie McLearn has 20 years’ experience working as a broker and has seen a fair share of changes within the industry.

When she started working in the early 2000s, all work was done manually and over the course of the years she has experienced the soft-hard cycles of the market.

“The computer I had on my desk was nothing more than a giant typewriter,” McLearn said, personal lines broker at AA Munro’s Greenwich office.

The CIP Society enlisted McLearn to answer Melanson’s most pressing questions about working in a hard market and pandemic.

What’s the best way to deal with answering the same question multiples times daily?

“Keep in mind that our job is to educate our clients. If you can educate while showing care, compassion and empathy, the client can go out into the world and feel confident that their broker is looking after them. That is what we are here for — to educate and provide the best possible protection.”

When is the hard market going to end?

“It’s not sudden, the end will happen gradually. Don’t be concerned that this is how it will always be and don’t be discouraged by it. You will sense a shift in areas where, right now, maybe insurance company guidelines are strict but as time goes on, as the shift from hard to soft happens, those companies will open their doors more and more.”

How do I combat the lack of social interaction?

“Keep in mind that at some point things will turn around and go back to normal. In the meantime take part in the virtual events available at your company or at industry associations. Human beings are social creatures so that social interaction is very important. Keep building relationships with clients, coworkers and companies that you sell for and take advantage of education opportunities like CAIB, CIP or FCIP.”

What is the best way for newer brokers to deal with challenges related to the pandemic?

“Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Just say ‘this is a challenge and I need more training’ or ‘can you help walk me through this.’ In some cases elderly clients are asking us to set things up electronically, they are very open to it but it takes up time — sometimes it goes as far as helping them set up an email address. If you are finding this to be a bit of a struggle, it’s OK to ask for help.”

Tricks to deal with difficult days?

“We see our clients at their best and worst times. As insurance brokers were are not always considered the good guys. You will have phenomenal days and think ‘I really helped this person.’ Other days you’ll have difficult conversations with a person who has perhaps had their home destroyed in a fire. What I would recommend to all brokers is that if you get an email from a client thanking you for having helped them through a rough situation, keep that in a separate folder and, if you’re having a bad day, go back and read through the email. It can make a bad day so much better.”

Helping employees address mental health problems

“There is a higher risk of burn out because working from home makes it easy to work all the time and some employers think their employees are available all the time and email nights and weekends — people are often working more than they need to."― Dr. Helen Ofosu, HR Consultant and Career Psychologist, I/O Advisory Services

The insidious way in which mental health problems can manifest in a person’s life can make it hard for employers to spot and take action to help their employees.

This can be even harder now in the work-from-home environment currently in place across many industries, including the insurance industry sector.

But ignoring these issues can come at a great cost — for the employee who is suffering, the employer’s bottom line and the economy, said Dr. Helen Ofosu, HR Consultant and Career Psychologist at I/O Advisory Services in Ottawa.

And because of the pandemic, mental health and substance use issues are on the rise and some experts fear a “mental health tsunami,” she said.

“There is a lot more anxiety and depression in society in general because of the different losses associated with the pandemic, which some are calling ‘pandemic grief,’” Ofosu said. “People have lost the ability celebrate milestones with family and friends, people have had sick family members and some have lost loved ones and were not able to say good bye properly — those are all losses.”

What employers are risking if mental health issues are ignored

According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), mental illness is the leading cause of disability in Canada and the burden it poses to the economy is grave — costing an estimated $51 billion per year due to health care costs and lost productivity.

Ofosu said economic costs are more easily recognizable than other risks employers are taking if employee mental health is ignored.

“There is a reputational risk for companies that don’t support people who are dealing with mental health and other work-related psychological issues,” she said. “Ignoring things that are being reported can be a big problem down the road.”

She said the “Me Too” movement was a prime example of what can happen to companies when serious complaints are swept under the rug.

“Before the ‘Me Too’ movement workplace issues were hiding in plain sight,” Ofosu said. “Now there is more attention being paid to bullying, harassment and discrimination and the piece about reputational risk management is more salient.”

Further to reputational risk, there is also risk of liability, she said, citing a $900 million class-action lawsuit (which has not been certified) filed against the federal government that alleges systemic racism in its hiring of public servants, dating back 50 years.

“To some extent, ignoring these counterproductive behaviours (such as harassment and discrimination) — knowing that your workplace is embroiled in such issues and not addressing — it could open the door to liability claims,” Ofosu said.

How to spot and address employee mental health issues

When it comes to spotting and supporting employee mental health issues, workplaces are doing better now than in the past. But it is only recently that workplaces started taking these problems seriously, Ofosu said.

She said it wasn’t until five or six years ago that work place mental health started getting more attention and that aligned with new legislation in which employer obligation towards dealing with harassment became clearer.

But this new era of working from home has ushered in workplace complexities that stoke the fires of mental illness.

Ofosu said employee susceptibility to mental illness and addiction is driven by complex boundaries between private life and work life, untenable work demands, exposure to domestic violence, and stressors of having to take a more active role in children’s schooling in particular or caregiving in general.

“There is a higher risk of burn out because working from home makes it easy to work all the time and some employers think their employees are available all the time and email nights and weekends — people are often working more than they need to,” she said.

Ofosu said common signs of anxiety, depression, addiction, and exposure to domestic violence are not just productivity related. These issues can also present in changes to physical appearance.

“Employees who constantly look exhausted and may have dramatic weight gain or weight loss could be struggling. There could also be missed deadlines by people who are usually conscientious and changes to quality of work,” Ofosu said. “Such changes are all things to keep an eye out for but it presents a real complexity for employers, whether —or even how — to ask.”

These sensitive topics require sensible approaches and the pandemic-driven imperative to address these issues has prompted workplaces to take innovative approaches, Ofosu said.

She said some employers have introduced a four-day work week for the same pay. Others have introduced time blocking, certain days and hours without meetings, allowing employees to work uninterrupted.

“Ongoing interruptions can take up a lot of time and take a psychological toll,” Ofosu said. “If someone is depressed, odds are high that they won’t have the energy and concentration to do work, performance goes way down and anxiety can rise.”

She said some organizations are offering vouchers or paying for meditation and relaxation mobile applications, like Calm and Headspace, to encourage better sleeping and self-care habits. Some employers are offering psychological services through Snapclarity, a mobile app-based therapy service, in addition to traditional benefits because psychotherapy, while sometimes necessary, can be very costly. She said benefit plans for psychotherapy are often in the $500 range and employees often end up having to pay out of pocket.

However, it is possible to address mental health issues head on, in a more obvious way, without calling out specific employees — and workplaces are doing that, Ofosu said.

“Employers are hosting mental health-specific workshops and town halls addressing some of these issues,” Ofosu said. “That way it’s arm’s length and not stigmatizing.”

While there is more awareness surrounding work place mental health and smart employers are paying more attention, many people are still suffering in silence, she said.

“My clients are reaching out because they are on stress leave or burn-out leave and are looking for a graceful exit,” Ofosu said. “There are working people who are quietly struggling, present at work but not fully engaged, they are trying their best but can’t perform.”

Employer resources:

• CAMH's Workplace Mental Health Resources Centre, includes a Mental Health Playbook and Policy Framework.
• Ottawa Public Health has published Managing Through COVID-19: an Employer's Guide and a number of fact sheets to support employees' mental health during the pandemic.
• The CEO Health + Safety Leadership Network, established by Workplace Safety & Prevention Services, has articles addressing employee burnout and mental fatigue.

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