Brian Semple, Head of External Affairs, Money and Mental Health
The energy price cap rise: Five ways energy firms can better support customers with mental health problems
3 February 2022
Today brought the long-expected news that energy prices are set to soar, thanks to the energy regulator Ofgem raising the cap on energy bills. This will see energy bills go up by 54%, with average annual household bills set to increase by £693 in April (in England, Wales and Scotland).
Alongside this worrying news, the government has announced support measures which will give all energy customers an automatic £200 discount (to be repaid later), and a £150 council tax rebate for some people.
These measures will help, but have to be seen in the context of rising interest rates, the loss of the Universal Credit uplift, the end of furlough, potential cuts to face-to face debt advice and a very difficult few years for many households. For those who were already struggling or who have been hit hard by the pandemic and wider cost of living crisis, a £200 loan is not going to make much of a dent.
Moreover, we know lots of people with mental health problems were already struggling to keep up with energy bills even before the price cap raise. And when you’re dealing with a mental health problem, asking your energy provider or other essential services for extra help can be really hard.
That’s why it’s more important than ever that energy firms take proactive action to let people know what support is available, and how they can access it. Unfortunately, as our latest report shows, we know that not enough firms are doing that. So we thought we’d share the five key things that energy companies should do to ensure that customers with mental health problems can access support.
1. Give people more ways to get in contact, and let them set their communications preferences
We know that lots of people with mental health problems experience serious “admin anxiety”, and around half face serious difficulties using the phone to carry out essential admin. Firms can make it easier for people with mental health problems to get in touch with them, by offering more communications channels and allowing people the option to set their communications preferences in terms of how they interact. Giving people in that situation a range of ways to get in touch – from phone to SMS, email and webchat — would make it easier and less stressful for someone with poor mental health to engage with service providers.
2. Make sure you communicate in clear, simple language
Price caps, tariffs, kilowatt hours – there’s a lot of jargon around energy bills. Getting your head around that can be tough at the best of times, never mind when your mental health is poor and you’re stressed about your finances. So it’s vital that firms make sure the key information that people need to know — for example, how much they’re being charged, when it’s due, and how to get support if you’re struggling — is prominent and explained using simple, jargon-free language.
3. Give people more control over home visits
There are a number of simple steps that firms can take to help customers retain a sense of control and avoid causing distress when a staff member visits (for example, to take a metre reading). Firstly, they should give people the option to book appointments at a time and day that best suits them. This puts the customer in control and allows them to prepare for the visit. Another thing that would help is offering people a password scheme, so that all visiting staff use a password to verify that they work for the provider. This can ease fears about abuse and scams. Finally, firms should be proactive in asking customers what adjustments they might need to ensure they are comfortable and happy with a home visit
4, Help people with decision-making
Poor mental health commonly affects people’s ability to think clearly and make decisions. Before interactions, energy firms should share information in advance with customers to help them feel prepared for a call or appointment. During a conversation, energy providers may need to share information more slowly, break decisions into chunks and check that the customer understands what is being discussed as they go. After a conversation, firms should send a follow-up message to recap on any decisions that were made and why. This can be practically useful for customers and can help to ensure that there is a shared understanding of what was decided.
5. Make it easier for people to get support from loved ones
Lots of people with mental health problems rely on “third parties” – such as loved ones or friends – to help them manage “life admin”, but sharing this decision-making is not always an easy process.
Thankfully, some energy firms already have measures in place to help with this – for example, by sending copies of bills and other correspondence to a nominated third party. Some banks also offer a ‘carers card’, which is a debit card that a third party can use for limited purposes, such as grocery shopping.
We’d like more firms to offer customers tools like this that allow them to give a third party (such as a carer or loved one) visibility over an account, or notifications of worrying activity on an account, so that they can discuss issues with the account holder and help them find a solution.