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Q&A: How financial advisers can play a role in your wellbeing

In this interview, TAL general manager for health services Dr Sally Phillips discusses her vocational journey, what she has learnt from a career in professional services and how to navigate stress, both in the workplace and outside of it.

What does “wellness” mean to you?

Wellness is more than just physical fitness — it encompasses physical, mental (including social) and financial fitness as well. All three of these pillars need to be in balance for us to be truly well.

How long have you worked in the health and wellness space?

I originally qualified as a medical doctor, so I guess all of my working life!

Why did you decide to take your expertise to the insurance industry?

I’ve worked in the insurance industry for over 20 years. Very early on, I realised that private medical practice wasn’t for me and I was lucky enough to be offered an opportunity as a medical officer for a company called Liberty Life in South Africa. I’d been doing a PhD in neurophysiology whilst doing my medical degree, so I was naturally attracted to statistics, outcomes and research-based principles. The transition to insurance medicine therefore made perfect sense.

I’ve worked across the Australian, South African and UK insurance industries in strategic leadership positions covering product design, marketing, sales and distribution roles. I joined TAL in April 2016 as general manager, health services, and my role managing the health services team enables me to focus on adding value from a holistic health and medical perspective throughout the customer journey, whilst supporting internal health technical capabilities.

Do you think financial advisers can play a role in the wellbeing of their clients?

Absolutely. They are key in the wellbeing of their clients. As previously mentioned, wellbeing encompasses physical, mental and financial fitness, and advisers can help their clients structure their protection and wealth needs in a way that not only cares for their immediate financial health, but can ensure long-term financial wellbeing as well.

People often talk about “work-life balance”. Is there really a balance to be achieved?

I have a slightly different view on this. With current technology, there is often less of a separation nowadays between work and personal life.

While this can be different for everyone, I believe we need to understand our core wellbeing requirements related to the three pillars of physical, mental and financial wellbeing and accept work as part of this overall structure, with a balance across all three elements.

What are some of the common causes of stress?

I think being overwhelmed and not feeling in control is one major cause of stress — this can range from something small like a red traffic light when you’re running late to being bullied at work.

Some stress can be good for us, but continuous stress can cause imbalance, firstly with mental and physical health, which may then lead to poor financial health. We need to firstly recognise our stress symptoms, learn how to take control of our stress, understand why we have it, what is causing it and then look at options as to what choices we have. If there are none — e.g. a red traffic light — then we need to look at alternative options that we can control — e.g. find an alternative route, call to say we will be late, or to relax and to consciously allow a lack of control for that moment.

What impact can stress actually have on us?

Stress causes the adrenal gland to release cortisol; this is the hormone that allows us to respond to “fright” situations by either adopting a “fight” or “flight” mode. This worked really well for our ancestors when faced with wild animals — their cortisol was released for short periods and then followed by long periods of normal cortisol levels.

By continually being stressed, our cortisol levels remain high for longer time periods, causing strain on many of our organs such as the heart, kidneys and liver. It’s important to have the ability to respond to high stress situations as blood is moved to areas that need it — heart, muscles, brain — and moved away “less important areas” such as the bowel. Again, this is what makes balance so important.

What are the signs and symptoms of this?

Amongst others, constant tiredness and fatigue; symptoms of anxiety (such as sweating, heart racing, nausea, difficulty breathing); headaches; difficulty sleeping, which can lead to depressive symptoms; pain in muscles and joints from being tense all the time, especially upper back and jaw; high blood pressure; poor bowel function; and being sick most of the time.

High cortisol levels are associated with a decreased ability for the immune system to fight common viruses and bacteria.

What can be done to treat stress?

Self-help: Focus on the three pillars of wellness and what is important to you as an individual across all three of these pillars. Ensure that this is balanced across all aspects of your life including work. Deal with each stressful situation as it arises — why am I stressed? what can I do about it?

Beyond self-help: If you are having any of the symptoms described and always seem to be tired and stressed, then have a chat with your GP who can determine the best way forward for you.

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“Kindness is the language that the deaf can hear and the blind can see.” – Mark Twain