Chris Lees, Research Officer, Money and Mental Health Policy Institute

Paying fairly? What Ofwat’s new guidelines mean for people with mental health problems

27 May 2022

“I can’t sleep at night for worrying, I keep crying and wonder how I’ll manage to keep going.” 

That’s what a member of our Research Community, a group of thousands of people with lived experience of mental health problems, recently told us and they are not alone. Prices for everyday items are continuing to rise and it’s likely that energy bills will increase to around £2,800 on average in October. While a lot of focus has rightly been on what the government should do, essential services providers like banks and water companies also have an important role to play. 

Last week, I wrote about changes Ofcom, the regulator for telecoms, proposed to its guidance on vulnerable customers. This week Ofwat, the regulator for the water industry, has announced new guidelines for water companies to support their customers. We were pleased to see Ofwat act on our suggestions and echo our recommendations for essential services firms. At a time of increased hardship, this new guidance should mean that people who are in debt will be treated fairly and get the support they need. 

Water companies should proactively offer support

Essential service providers have support they can offer customers, including those struggling to pay their bills, but often customers aren’t getting this help because they don’t know about it. Ofwat’s new guidelines make it clear that water companies need to be proactive in identifying and reaching out to people who might need extra support to use their services or who can’t afford their water bill. 

The majority of people with mental health problems will struggle with at least one form of communication. So it’s also great to see Ofwat recommend that water companies use a customer’s preferred communication method (e.g. post, email, phone). What might seem like a small thing, such as sending something by email rather than post, can make a huge difference. Ofwat have also said firms should, where relevant, take a customer’s preferred time of day to be contacted into account. Some symptoms of mental health conditions or side-effects of medication can mean that you are better able to deal with bills at a certain point of the day.

“When my mental health is bad, I live in a place of fear, shame, worry and anxiety… I can’t make phone calls, or even answer the phone when I get to this stage. I struggle to use the phone at any time, even to call my family.” Expert by experience

Minimising distress

Falling behind on your bills can be a very stressful experience and our research has found a devastating connection between problem debt and suicidality. Given this, it’s vital that the communications that creditors, including water companies, send to people in debt are supportive and do not cause unnecessary distress.

“I find the whole matter of debt collecting traumatic and stressful” Expert by experience

This is something we called on Ofwat to add to their guidance. So we are really pleased that Ofwat have said that debt communications should use “clear and non-threatening language that minimises any psychological distress”. These changes should  make it easier for people who are struggling to ask for help earlier, which is good for both them and the water company.

The Equality Act

Earlier this year we published a report that looked at the Equality Act and mental health. We found that providers aren’t always taking people with mental health problems’ needs into account. One of the steps we thought would make a difference was if regulators remind providers of their legal obligations under the Act. So it is good to see several references to the Equality Act throughout the new guidelines. The combination of the Equality Act and the new guidelines provide lots of valuable protection for people with mental health problems. We were also delighted to see Ofwat include our Equality Act guide as best practice for essential services. 

Getting this right

The cost of living crisis is affecting most of us, but some people are really struggling right now and if you can’t afford one bill, it’s likely you can’t afford the rest. Ofwat’s guidelines contain lots of good requirements for water companies, but it is now up to those companies to make sure they are getting this right. 

Our Mental Health Accessible programme helps essential service providers understand the needs of their customers with mental health problems and make their services work well for them. This includes helping firms ensure their communications are as supportive as possible and involves vital feedback from our Research Community. 

You can read our guidance for firms referenced by Ofwat in their decisions document here. To find out more about Mental Health Accessible, click here or email [email protected].