Joseph Mills looks at the role of stress in mental health, and why student actuaries need to consider its potential effects on both colleagues and clients
Yesterday, I completed my - admittedly overdue - online training modules. Usually, the automated email from HR once a month results in a 15-30 minute slide deck, followed by a multiple choice test. It sometimes gives you the opportunity to flick right to the end and crack on with the assessment.
This approach is perfect because these things can be considered a 'waste of time', only there to fulfil 'corporate responsibility' checklists. Right?
This time, however, the email brought to my attention an area I am not too familiar with. The subject was a "leaders' guide to mental health".
As I am writing this month's column on such a sensitive topic, I feel I am stepping on eggshells. But mental health is a topic we need to be conscious of in our day-to-day lives and in the workplace - perhaps more so as we are actuaries, who are, if we fulfil the stereotype, skewed towards introverted behaviour.
Stress is a topic that was well covered in my online learning module and which, according to the Mental Health Foundation (MHF), is one of the biggest drivers behind the rise of mental ill health. But stress itself is not the problem. "The stress response is a survival strategy to keep us safe. It was a vital adaption when looking to survive being eaten on the savannah."
Actuarial professionals often come under immense pressure from varying sources, including meeting deadlines, delivering business benefits, taking on more risk-related workloads or sitting exams.
That's not to mention the other areas of our lives that we have to consider. There's a range of areas that someone might worry about. What about the rent? Will I ever be able to afford my own place? Can I go on holiday? What about relationships with my friends and family?
The list of potential stress-related factors is endless, yet each person experiences problems in a different way. What one person can manage is not a reflection of how others can cope. You wouldn't, for example, give a CA1 paper to someone fresh out of GCSEs, whose only understanding of actuarial work is that it is 'something to do with acting'.
With our actuarial hats on, let's consider something interesting. Professor Marmot at the MHF believes that "power and resources protect you from stress and its impact. The lower your place on the social hierarchy, the more vulnerable you are to the impact of stress. In fact, you can plot a person's life expectancy by using the postcode of where somewhere lives. Talk about a postcode lottery."
This is fascinating. And those working within life, health and care and pensions will have a far more intimate knowledge within this area.
It makes me wonder whether an increase in resources to an area of a business might affect workers' mental health in a positive way. How can we understand this more? And how can we reduce the fear of uncertainty, financial worry and the stress of our customers?
These are all questions we should be asking when making decisions in the workplace, while not forgetting the stresses and concerns that you and your colleagues will face.
My approach to online learning has changed, and I now understand the reason it is there. If you get a chance to have a look, the MHF has a plethora of information and resources to peruse.
Even if you feel you are in good mental health, reading their material could enable you to tackle challenges you may face in the future, in talking to, and helping others through their challenges, as well as shaping and strengthening your commercial workplace decisions.
Joseph Mills is joint student editor