Returner programmes: Breaking the stigma of not 'being in the room'
The use of returner programmes is growing as more brokers and insurers recognise this kind of support leads to a more engaged and diverse workforce. But more can be done, particularly at a senior level.
The challenges presented by the global pandemic and remote working have encouraged a seismic shift in how the insurance industry thinks about the world of work.
As a traditionally male-dominated industry, with a strong focus on relationships and - particularly in the London market - face-to-face engagement, it has at times been a hostile environment for returning parents.
Over 90% of maternity returners said they received no support when they went back to work, according to a 2018 cross-industry survey by working parents website MMB. The study found that 37% felt so unsupported and isolated on their return they wanted to leave.
"The insurance sector has been one of the most difficult sectors in which to create impactful returner programmes since it is so relationship-based. Prior to the pandemic, it was all about 'being in the room'," says Brit Insurance’s chief engagement officer Lorraine Denny.
But as working from home restrictions ease and industry firms welcome staff back into the workplace, that stigma is slowly being broken. There is a broader focus on what support is needed for returners more generally, including flexible/hybrid working opportunities.
One positive emerging from the "strangeness" of this return is it could also benefit those coming back into the office after an extended period of leave.
"A major challenge we’re seeing at the moment is new parents returning to their post-COVID workplaces," says Denny. "The physical office space and how employees navigate through it has changed tremendously since many left for parental leave."
Some insurance and broking firms are introducing more structured 'returner programmes'. These initiatives are not just focused on returning parents, helping them reintegrate into the workforce after a period of extended leave, but anyone who has had an extended 'career break'.
As broker Lockton stated when it launched its 'return to work' initiative in March, the break could be to care for elderly relatives or recover from a long-term illness or injury, with the latter having particular resonance in a world affected by long-COVID. Even without the additional challenge of poor health or mental health, it can be difficult to reintegrate without the right support.
This is where returner programmes come in. Put simply, they are there to guide returners through the transition.
"While ranging in complexity, the best returning programmes run across the breadth of an organisation and have the full backing of all employee levels to make it a success," says Brit’s Denny.
In March, the Insurance Families Network (IFN) announced a cross-industry collaboration with Inclusivity Partners, which is supported by the CII and Lloyd's of London. Beginning this September, it is a six-month programme aimed at anyone who has taken a career break of two or more years and wants to re-enter professional life.
The programme is seeking interest from individuals with a wide range of backgrounds, from actuarial skills and underwriting, through to risk and compliance, claims and broking.
"Nine companies have signed up for the pilot," says Cristina Galindo, co-chair of IFN and head of HR at Chubb. "They are interviewing now with the aim for the returners to start in September."
"The idea is that we run it again at the end of the year and we have other companies in the pipeline looking to be part of this," she continues. "It's quite a new thing in insurance."
"One returner I have spoken to - who was out of the market for around seven years - said she would have been ready to come back earlier but the market just wasn't ready, there was no flexibility and her children were too young. So she had to wait longer than she would have wished," says Galindo.
Characteristics for success
Characteristics of an effective return to work programme should include a period of transition and preparation of teams and managers on how they can support their returning colleague. It is a structured re-introduction - in which the individual is briefed on what has changed during their absence - followed by ongoing coaching and mentoring.
For a business like insurance, which is built on relationships, returners need to build in time to re-cultivate relationships with clients and colleagues.
There are also softer, cultural elements. Firms can de-stigmatise the challenges presented by re-entering the workplace by talking more openly at a senior level and recognising that returners have transferable skills that may actually make them a greater asset.
By "front-loading" the investment in returning staff, the organisation benefits directly by having employees that can hit the ground running, explains Beth Hale, partner at employment and partnership law firm CM Murray.
"It is much better to have a flourishing returner than ending up with a time-consuming, difficult HR situation with a disenfranchised individual further down the line, or - as a worst-case scenario - ending up with discrimination claims," she says.
Support for returners does not have to take the shape of a formal programme, she emphasises. It can fit the size and nature of the organisation while delivering the same outcomes. "If you have fewer staff you can still offer support that has a big impact. It's about making sure that individuals don't feel they are coming back to work and disappearing into the background."
The risks of not acting far outweigh any investment in returner programmes, particularly when it comes to performance, engagement and diversity and inclusion (D&I).
Firms that fail to raise the bar on flexible working and D&I will struggle to attract and retain talent. One study from PwC found the vast majority (86%) of millennial women consider an employer's policies on equality when deciding what company to work for.
Lack of diversity is a particular concern at a senior level. Less than a quarter (23%) of UK firms go beyond basic legislative requirements on D&I, according to a CIPD study, which recommends developing programmes like career returners to broaden the senior talent pool and diversify people’s skills.
There has been some progress on gender balance at a board level within the insurance industry, with women making up 29% of boards in 2020 (up from just 19% in 2017), according to research by the ABI.
But there is still a long way to go, thinks Claire Ball, group HR director at Convex. The firm is targeting top tier talent through an initiative with consultancy, Women Returners.
"Individuals who take career breaks are often female and such programmes will help organisations bolster their female talent pipeline at mid-to-senior levels, which will inevitably have a positive impact on the gender pay gap and diversity over time," she says.
"It also enables businesses to address skills gaps and provides companies with access to valuable and alternative perspectives."