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

Why essential services need to listen to experts by experience

3 December 2021

When essential services firms include experts by experience, they can shape services, tools and processes with those who need to use them. 

Bulb, which supplies more than 1.7 million households, recently collapsed into ‘special administration’, becoming the largest firm to fail during the current energy crisis. 

This latest news is certainly unsettling for people and with so much noise around this crisis, it’s vital that energy suppliers reach out to customers with mental health problems to find out what will help,  and take action to regularly incorporate the voice of lived experience into the design and evaluation of communications.

At Money and Mental Health, our Research Community of over 3,000 people with personal experience of mental health problems is at the heart of everything we do and in the coming months, we’ll be speaking to our community about their recent experiences with energy suppliers. And knowing that half of people in problem debt also have a mental health problem, we’ll be sure to find out how they are being communicated with when they are struggling to pay.

“[With my debt] it feels like I’m trying to move a mountain and have a spoon to dig with. It feels like a huge black cloud that hangs above your head and no ray of sunshine gets through. It feels like a weight that you carry, because of having the responsibility for dealing with it, and that even Atlas would struggle with the pressure of carrying the burden.” Expert by experience

Inclusion of customer voice

Real insight from experts by experience can transform outcomes for customers, so we are encouraged that, ‘The Vulnerability Commitment’ – which is a voluntary industry code, led by trade association Energy UK – requires suppliers to support or undertake regular customer research to evaluate their approach to supporting vulnerable customers, including those with mental health problems. 

Last month, EnergyUK shared the commitments’ first annual ‘best practice report’, detailing that it had inspired a number of suppliers to complete customer research for the first time.

Lived experience trends

The lived experience trend continued later in the month, with Ofgem sharing some new research that included customer interviews – to understand how the content and tone of debt communications can influence a customer. Ofgem’s research found that communications which are more ‘harsh’ in tone and focus on encouraging immediate repayment of debt left customers feeling ‘threatened’ or ‘scared’, and can reduce engagement when compared to communications that are ‘friendlier’ tone.

A silent killer

While Ofgem’s findings are welcome – they are by no means new. Our report ‘A silent killer’ from 2018 highlighted the fear and hopelessness that aggressive collections activity inspires, making it more difficult for people to seek a sustainable debt solution, as well as increasing the risk of suicide.

To be in debt and to have people calling up to fifteen times a day, to have your voicemail full, to have the postman open your letterbox with even more debt letters with even more threats – is too much for anyone. You think your life isn’t worth living.” Experts by experience

Since then, we have called for essential services providers to minimise psychological harm; to recognise that there is an asymmetry of power between provider and indebted customer, which can make people feel vulnerable, and to acknowledge that the tone and design of written communications can have a significant impact.

Just last week, we published new research, showing as many as 2.5 million people with mental health problems may have experienced suicidal thoughts or attempted to take their own life while behind on a payment in the past year.  

While there are many complex factors that can leave a person feeling suicidal, the link with debt is undeniable, and it’s not set to get any easier…

The challenges vulnerable customers face

The latest forecast indicates that the Summer 2022 energy price cap could see a further increase of approximately 14% – taking the cap to £1,455 per year for a typical customer

While this increase looms, our newest research shows energy suppliers will have some other compounding challenges to deal with; more than one in four people with mental health problems now owe more than they did a year ago, and more than one in three people with mental health problems took out new credit in the last 12 months to pay for essentials like heating.

“I received letters threatening court action which was stressful. Eventually I used credit cards to pay the [essential service provider] bill and that simply made the problem worse. Expert by experience

 As we move towards next summer with more customers in debt, credit cards being used to pay for essentials, and a potentially whopping price cap increase – things are heating up – and not in a good way.

Taking action

By listening to struggling customers, an energy firm can work to ensure it doesn’t cause additional harm to those already experiencing psychological and financial pressures.

“During the pandemic I had a phone call from my energy provider about my tariff and I’m on the vulnerable list – and we talked through my options, and at the end of the call this lady said something really powerful, she went ‘are you in a state to be able to take out this contract?’. The fact that a provider who was aware of my situation would double check that I was ok to take this on was really powerful for me. Because one – It helped me check that I was ok to do this, and two – it said they cared”  Rob, Expert by experience

When we get it right for people, we start to break the vicious cycle of money and mental health problems.