Alexis Stevens, Senior Strategic Partnerships Officer, Money and Mental Health Policy Institute

How energy suppliers can support customers with mental health problems through the energy crisis

20 April 2022

The cost of living crisis is happening right now, and all indicators suggest it’s going to get worse as the year goes on. Energy prices are no exception. Just yesterday, energy suppliers cited their huge concerns; EDF have seen calls from customers about debt rise by 40% and EON expect debt to rise by 50%. With millions of customers struggling to afford essentials and facing mounting debts, energy firms must take action to support vulnerable customers – including those with mental health problems.

We acknowledge energy providers have limited control over wholesale gas prices, but they can control how they interact with their customers, particularly those in debt and those in distress. Today we’ve published a new guide for energy suppliers – setting out simple, practical steps they can take to make it easier for customers with mental health problems.

What customers are saying

We are already hearing from people who are cutting back on essentials like, cooking and washing, and those who are falling behind on bills.

“The rise has affected me in ways that I am embarrassed to admit. It has resulted in me not using my heating system or showering as often. The cooker has been about the only heat I have used when preparing the one meal I am allowing myself because I worry my direct debit will have to increase again.” Expert by experience

We asked our Research Community, a group of three thousand people with experience of mental health problems, about their experiences of the energy crisis. Research Community members spoke about not only facing difficult decisions – such as choosing between heating their homes and paying for food – but also an absence of support from energy firms in this context. In our survey, only a third of respondents had received communications from their provider.

What the regulator wants to see

Energy providers will no doubt be considering the article written by Jonathan Brearley, chief executive of Ofgem, last week, stating that ‘the challenges customers face today should be a call to action for energy retailers to improve the way they treat customers’ – as well as setting out where Ofgem is working to tighten and strengthen its supervision of the market. These signals from Ofgem should be a prompt for change across the sector.  

What action firms should take

In recent months we’ve spoken to employees in energy providers, many of whom are working incredibly hard to support their customers at this time – but we need more than a handful of stand-out staff, often sitting in specialist teams. Firms must consider how they are interacting with customers as a whole, from the bills they send to the quality of assistance from customer support teams. Some of our most urgent asks from the guidance include:

  • Review the communications you send out about missed payments, debt and defaulting. Ask yourself, could these be less intimidating? Could they offer more support? Are you letting customers know what to expect when they get in touch and if you are signposting to services which can help?
  • Enable customers to get in touch through multiple channels. We know that 75% of people with mental health problems have difficulty with at least one form of communication channel, and often it’s the telephone. 
  • Proactively offer payment plans to those who are struggling to pay. We know from our research many providers haven’t reached out, and many customers won’t know how to ask for this, so be proactive in offering it.

For providers who make the choice to implement the actions from this guidance, it will not just minimise distress for customers. Our guidance is likely to have significant business benefits too; reducing strain on customer services teams, improving staff wellbeing, and making collections processes less costly.

Our Mental Health Accessible team is eager to support those who make the choice to utilise this guidance. To talk to us about the guidance, or to access targeted support, get in touch with [email protected]

Download the guidance here.