Katrina Gaffney, External Affairs Intern, Money and Mental Health
How the energy sector can improve support for people with mental health problems
16 October 2019
Over the summer, Money and Mental Health delivered a consultation response to Ofgem’s draft Customer Vulnerability Strategy for 2025. We think there are several ways in which the energy sector could improve support for people experiencing mental health problems and we hope to see some of these recommendations implemented in future.
Common symptoms of mental health problems, such as low motivation, unreliable memory and limited concentration, can make it difficult for people to engage with their energy supplier. 40% of people who have experienced mental health problems show significant levels of anxiety when dealing with essential service providers. These factors contribute to an increased risk of harm in the energy market for people experiencing mental health problems; 53% of people in debt on their gas bill have a mental health problem, and so do 59% of those in electricity arrears.
There is a clear imperative for Ofgem and energy suppliers to improve the way they support people with mental health problems. Here’s what we think has to be included in Ofgem’s strategy if it is to serve the needs of vulnerable customers most effectively:
Making energy services accessible to everyone
It is always good to see firms thinking about how they can best deal with an individual’s disclosure of mental health problems. However, a strategy to help vulnerable customers that assumes people will disclose mental health problems to their energy supplier is not enough to ensure that all customers are protected. Many people do not feel comfortable disclosing this information; the current mechanisms for disclosure, as well as previous negative experiences, can mean that people are unwilling to reveal their mental health problems to energy suppliers. Moreover, 36% of people with a common mental disorder have not received a diagnosis. This is a sizeable group of people who cannot disclose but who still deserve to have their needs addressed. We think that the solution to this is to make all mainstream services more accessible, including for the most vulnerable customers, rather than trying to tailor services for customers who have identified themselves as vulnerable.
Minimum standards of accessibility
There should be minimum standards of accessibility which people can expect across essential service providers; these standards should include a commitment to provide accessible services regardless of whether a person has disclosed a mental health problem or not. Money and Mental Health have launched their own set of Mental Health Accessible Standards which will help service providers better understand the needs of customers and make their services easier to use. A couple of standards we would be particularly keen to see the energy sector adopt include:
- Customers should be able to carry out key actions via a variety of different communications channels (e.g. online, over the phone)
- Customers should be reminded of key information from conversations which happen verbally or online
- Communications should always draw customer’s attention to the most important information.
Minimising psychological harm
According to current Ofgem regulations, energy suppliers should already be signposting vulnerable customers to appropriate support services, but this information is not always reaching people who are experiencing mental health problems. Energy suppliers need to signpost more effectively to people in problem debt; for example, information about debt advice should be placed at the top of letters and included before any information about payments which are due. Our research has shown that collections and enforcement activities can lead to psychological distress and in some cases even raise the risk of suicide. To mitigate this, energy suppliers should only be using regulated debt collection and enforcement firms, or those who comply with similar industry standards.
Identifying vulnerable customers
People experiencing a mental health problem can find it difficult to ask for help, but, as a result of smart energy systems, energy providers may be able to spot changes in behaviour which indicate that someone is struggling. Energy firms could make a big difference by exploring ways to use this insight to identify when someone may be at risk of financial difficulty, and to signpost them to sources of support. Ofgem should encourage firms to be proactive in this area.
New technologies in the energy market (such as services which can automate comparison and switching) could remove the need for people to actively search for suppliers in future. It is important that any technological advancements should be used to improve outcomes for all customers, including those who may have previously struggled to access the best deals and competitive prices. Ofgem should consider how they can encourage this kind of inclusive innovation.