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Income protection & your mental health

LifeSearch author Sophie Cussons
11 min read

by Sophie Cussons, Marketing Executive

See author bio

Sophie began as a Protection Adviser at LifeSearch in 2017, and now brings her experience to Protection Content.See author bio

Guide last reviewed 20 Mar 2024

Here at LifeSearch, we’re big believers in income protection cover for every working person. After all, an illness or injury that compromises your ability to work really could strike at any time. Whilst there’s no way to stop this from happening, income protection cover can help you feel safeguarded, so you don’t have to add cash flow to your list of worries at an already difficult time. Bills don’t go away just because you can’t work, so income protection is there to be your safety net. 

However, not every illness and injury is a physical one. Anxiety and depression have been estimated to have caused one fifth of lost work days in Britain, with one adult in every six experiencing one of these common mental health issues [1].

Dealing with a mental health issue can make working impossible, both in short term instances and over longer periods of time, and you shouldn’t be without your income just because you and your brain aren’t getting on so well. Adding financial pressure to an already heightened level of mental stress isn’t helpful for anyone. The good news is that you could find an income protection policy that will cover you for mental health issues, so you don’t have to deal with it alone. 

Income protection will cover a percentage of your income - usually between 50 and 70% until you’re fit to return to work or until your policy period ends. Whilst you can’t buy the assurance that you’ll never get sick, you can buy the peace of mind that comes with knowing you’ll be financially secure if you do. 

The mental health conversation is intensifying 

Recent developments in the news have helped throw new light on the importance of looking after our mental health, and rightly so. A quarter of us are likely to experience a mental health problem [2] of some kind in any given year, and even amid the coronavirus crisis, it remained one of the most prominent causes of work absence in the UK [3].

The COVID-19 pandemic is, of course, far from detached from the subject of mental health. Our own Health Wealth & Happiness Index for 2020/21 [4] found that amid lockdowns and other restrictions on our lives, the average Brit’s happiness fell to a record low by the start of 2021, 18% down from 12 months earlier. 

39% of adults said their mental health had deteriorated over the previous year, compared to the 14% who said it had got better. Big spikes had also been observed in the proportion of the UK population experiencing stress, scaredness, sadness and apathy since the crisis began. 

Whilst this seems like pretty awful news, protecting yourself with an income protection policy is more accessible now than it ever has been before. This type of cover puts the emphasis on you being unable to work, rather than the specific injury or illness you’re experiencing. This means that, among other forms of illness or injury, it can cover the policyholder for mental health conditions such as stress.

Taking time off work for mental health 

If a mental health issue requires you to take time off work, your employer should take the matter seriously and give you appropriate support. This is in accordance with their legal ‘duty of care’, which requires them to do everything they reasonably can to support the health, safety and wellbeing of their employees. 

There are various mental health issues that may force someone to take time off work, including stress, depression, anxiety and – less commonly – bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. 

While mental health problems should be treated no less seriously by employers than physical health issues, mental health issues at work can also be a complicated matter for organisations to get right, and it can be difficult to ask for the time off when you need it. 

However, as scary as it can be with the stigma around discussing mental health, employees are entitled to take time off work for a mental health illness, and regardless of the exact cause of the staff member being unable to work, their employer should process the time off taken as sick leave. 

Being off work for at least four days means you should receive at least the current rate of statutory sick pay (SSP). You will not need to give your employer a doctor’s note or other proof of illness from a medical professional if you are absent from work for seven days or less, but such proof will be required if your leave exceeds seven days. 

Income protection claims for depression

Recent years have seen employers and broader society become more aware of the scale and complexity of depression, including its potential effect on sufferers’ everyday ability to function. Suffering from depression is certainly not the same as simply “feeling down”. Coinciding with this increased understanding of depression, income protection insurers have worked hard to make their policies more accessible to those who have suffered from this condition. 

Many workers who have suffered episodes of depression in the past may be worried as to whether an income protection insurance policy would cover them in the event of any re-occurrence rendering them unable to work. 

The exact answer to this is likely to depend on factors like the nature and severity of your past depression. If your only history of depression, for example, is an isolated episode several years ago, you may find that it has little or no effect on the income protection policy you seek today. It is also historically the case that insurers have tended to look more favourably upon both pre and post-natal depression than other types, given the perception of these being isolated incidents. 

Similarly, a history of brief instances of mild depression is likely to be regarded as lower risk by insurers than proof of past severe and enduring depression, including suicidal thoughts and tendencies. 

The Disability Discrimination Act makes it illegal for insurers to reject would-be income protection policyholders – or charge them higher premiums – unless they can cite how an applicant’s specific mental health condition presents statistically higher risks. 

For this reason, you can expect to be asked questions relating to your history of mental health conditions and it’s possible that a GP report will be requested, when you apply for such cover. This will inform the insurer’s decision as to whether to agree to cover you, charge you certain premiums, or accept or turn down a claim arising from depression. 

Does income protection cover stress?

The statistics on workplace stress in the UK are sadly staggering; in 2020, almost eight in 10 (79%) British adults in employment experienced work-related stress. [5] This made work-related stress the most common form of stress in the UK. What’s more, 17.1 million working days were lost as a result of work-related stress, depression or anxiety in Great Britain in 2022/23. [6]

The good news is that taking out an income protection insurance policy could help cover you for stress-related illnesses. 

While stress is widespread in the workplace, and can arise from a variety of factors and circumstances – ranging from disagreements with colleagues to challenging workloads and difficult personal circumstances – it should always be taken seriously. While, for example, stress is not in itself considered to be a disability, it could lead to anxiety and in turn, the creation or exacerbation of a more serious mental health issue. 

If you are experiencing especially high levels of workplace stress, it is worth speaking to your GP, who may be able to provide you with a note to be signed off work with stress and anxiety. 

If you need to be signed off for an extended period of time, it’s very possible that an income protection policy will be able to cover your income during this period of time, although it’s important to note that if you have suffered from episodes of stress in the past – and especially if medical intervention was needed as a result – you are much less likely to be able to have this covered by an income protection policy. Nonetheless, the fact that income protection policies are medically underwritten upfront will give you certainty in advance as to whether your policy will cover you for particular conditions. 

Burnout and income protection 

Burnout is a phenomenon closely related to stress.  It has been described by the NHS [7] as “a feeling of physical, mental and emotional exhaustion” that can result from “experiencing long-term stress or severe stress.” 

Global online searches for ‘occupational burnout’ increased by 184% when comparing August 2020 with August 2019, in a sure sign that more and more people are worrying about the consequences of accumulative exhaustion in their jobs. And in another indicator of the exacerbating effects of the COVID-19 crisis [8], searches online in the UK for symptoms with terms such as ‘burnout symptoms’ increased by 260% from 2016 to 2020, with a further 260% increase between 2020 and 2021.

As with stress, if you are signed off work due to burnout, you may be able to make a claim on an income protection policy to help ensure your bills are taken care of as you recover. With statutory sick pay (SSP) only being paid for up to 28 weeks by employers, and with a limited amount of money, it’s crucial to ensure you are suitably protected if you fear your occupation could leave you at risk of burnout. This is especially so given that burnout is a condition that can also affect the otherwise young and healthy.  

Bipolar disorder and income protection 

Bipolar disorder is a mental health condition that can impact on mood, and is often characterised by swings in mood from one extreme to another. Its exact cause is unknown, although it is thought that potential triggers for an episode can include extreme stress, overwhelming problems, and life-changing events. About one in 100 people will be diagnosed with it [9] at some point in their life, and over 1 million people in the UK have the condition [10].

As with the other conditions addressed in this guide, your chances of being accepted for income protection insurance if you have already been diagnosed with bipolar disorder is likely to depend on the severity of your condition. 

If you only have mild symptoms, it is possible that insurers will offer you cover. However, the policy you are offered may include exclusions preventing you from making a claim in relation to a mental health problem. If you do get accepted for a policy that enables you to claim due to a mental health issue, your premiums may be higher than they would have been without a bipolar disorder diagnosis. If you’re suffering from more severe bipolar disorder, characterised by frequent symptoms, the use of alcohol/drugs, and/or previous suicide attempts, you may be turned down for income protection insurance. 

If you’re struggling to find cover, going through a broker (like us here at LifeSearch) can help manage your expectations and help you feel like you’re getting the best service.

When you apply for an income protection policy and have a bipolar diagnosis, you can expect insurance providers to ask you to provide a medical report from your GP, to help them better understand your condition. The extent of your bipolar disorder – and associated symptoms such as mood swings, manic episodes and/or suicide attempts – is likely to greatly influence whether your application for this insurance is accepted, and the premiums the insurer charges. 

The exact cover you are offered is also likely to be impacted by how well-controlled your bipolar disorder is, how it is being treated, and what medication you are on for it. 

Have you been accepted for bipolar income protection insurance in the past, but with stringent terms imposed? If so, it’s worth checking your current circumstances every now and then, as you may be in a position later to be accepted for better cover with more favourable terms. 

Income protection insurance with pre-existing conditions

Pre-existing conditions are one of the big things to be aware of when comparing income protection insurance policies. In short, if you’re looking to take out an income protection insurance policy and have previously suffered from a mental health condition, such as past periods of stress – especially if medical intervention was needed in the past – you might not be covered for this in the future. However, a pre existing condition doesn’t have to exclude you from getting cover entirely. A medical history of depression doesn’t have to prevent you from getting an income protection policy that covers you for serious injuries or conditions like cancer. 

It’s important to realise that in this regard, income protection policies don’t treat mental health conditions any differently to physical illnesses or injuries. If, for instance, you have a history of severe asthma, it’s unlikely that an income protection policy will cover you for asthma attacks or other asthma-related issues, but you can still find cover for other unrelated illness and injury. 

It’s a widespread misconception that having a pre-existing condition will prevent you from obtaining income protection insurance altogether. However, there can be great differences in this regard from one insurer to another. Some insurers, for example, have a review system in place, whereby they may consider removing an exclusion from your policy in one or two years, if a mental health problem for which you wish to be covered has not reoccurred.

How can LifeSearch help?

Trying to negotiate the ins and outs of insurance policies can feel difficult enough if you’re 100% fit and healthy. All the terms can get overwhelming, and it can be stressful trying to ensure you’re covered how you want to be covered. 

Going through a trusted and experienced broker can help you understand exactly what is available to you and help you understand how your existing conditions affect your cover. If you don’t have any pre-existing conditions but there are things you want to make sure you’re covered for, a broker can help guide you in the right direction here too. 

References

[1] https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/explore-mental-health/mental-health-statistics/most-common-mental-health-problems-statistics
[2] https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/mental-health-facts-and-statistics/#HowCommonAreMentalHealthProblems
[3] https://www.ons.gov.uk/employmentandlabourmarket/peopleinwork/labourproductivity/articles/sicknessabsenceinthelabourmarket/2021
[4] https://www.lifesearch.com/reports/health-wealth-happiness-2020/hwh-2022-part-2---the-index
[5] https://www.statista.com/statistics/1134359/common-types-of-stress-in-the-uk/
[6] https://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/dayslost.htm
[7] https://www.nhs.uk/every-mind-matters/mental-health-issues/stress/
[8] https://www.microbizmag.co.uk/burnout-statistics-uk/
[9] https://www.nhs.uk/mental-health/conditions/bipolar-disorder/overview/ 
[10] https://www.bipolaruk.org/understanding-bipolar#how-many-people-have-bipolar

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LifeSearch author Sophie Cussons
Sophie Cussons Marketing Executive
Sophie began as a Protection Adviser at LifeSearch in 2017, helping customers to Protect the lives they love. She now brings her experience to Protection Content within the Marketing team. Sophie’s a passionate Street Dance teacher in her spare time, and teaches children and adults all the right moves.
See all articles by Sophie Cussons
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