The links between addictions and financial problems are well documented. Here the Money Advice Trust’s Vulnerability Lead, Chris Fitch, looks at the challenge of supporting customers with addictions, and how the Trust’s new face-to-face training can help.
He says, “People living with any addiction can have complex and difficult lives that can easily lead to financial detriment, including over-spending, indebtedness and loss of control.
Our 21 steps research (Vulnerability: a guide for debt collection) shows that one in four front line creditor staff find it difficult to talk about the issue of addictions with customers – more than any other type of vulnerable situation. This is not a small challenge with one in ten front line staff and one in four specialist staff encountering customers with an addiction most days or every day.
It is clear that more support is needed for creditor staff to have these difficult conversations.
For a long time in the credit industry, the term ‘vulnerability’ went hand in hand with mental health. Creditors have invested significantly in support for customers with mental health problems – and the good news is, this appears to be paying off.
However, vulnerability is more than mental health. Attention is now turning to the full range of other vulnerable situations that creditor staff will encounter – such as mental capacity limitations, serious illness and increasingly – addictions – be it to gambling, alcohol or substance misuse.
This research provides new data, insights and recommendations to support organisations working with indebted customers in vulnerable situations.
Our research shows front line creditor staff find it difficult to talk about addictions with customers – although many encounter customers with an addiction most days or every day.
We also found that staff are often confronted with little or no organisational policy to help them with this issue and that they are particularly concerned over how customers will react.
An organisational policy to deal with addiction and the right training are crucial for creditors to work with indebted people struggling with addiction. Both of these are important as they provide staff with the confidence, knowledge, and skills to deal with these issues and support customers.
All creditors should ensure that their vulnerability policies take addictions into account. This is more than just being aware of addiction, but thinking about the commercially-realistic action that can be taken.
The challenge is for creditors’ to review their policy and protocols and train staff to further identify and support customers dealing with addictions and place them firmly on their vulnerability agenda. If the industry can give addictions the same prominence in its thinking as it has with mental health, real improvements for customers can be delivered.
Our latest research – written with my Personal Finance Research Centre and Money Advice Trust hats on – maps out five steps creditors can take.
- Consider how addiction is currently viewed internally: Staff often have direct sight of the financial harms addiction can cause, and are well placed to link customers to external helping services. This is key, as addiction is treatable and manageable. To support and refer such customers, organisations need to clearly signal to staff that an addiction is just like any other vulnerable situation.
- Know the ‘signs’ of addiction: There are specific cues that might indicate an underlying addiction when staff are discussing or reviewing a customer’s financial situation. These can include repeated expenditure on known gambling sites, ‘black holes’ in a budget which the customers cannot explain, and sudden bursts of spending which could indicate trying to recoup a loss.
- Raise the issue with customers: Once these cues are recognised the issue can be raised with customers. It is key to note that staff should never assume a potential addiction is a phase that a customer will just pass through. It has to be acted upon. Staff need to start a conversation with careful judgement and tact.
- Understand the situation: When talking about addictions, customers will all respond in different ways, including relief, embarrassment, openness, anger and silence. Staff will need to be able to manage these emotional reactions with a non-judgmental attitude – and reassure the customer about the confidentiality of any information shared.
- Support customers: Just like any other type of customer in vulnerable circumstances, staff should always signpost customers to helplines and other support organisations.
The Money Advice Trust has worked with the Royal Bank of Scotland and NatWest, and developed in partnership a new face-to-face training course. The course, which is available to all creditors, helps staff to understand, identify and support customers with addictions, and can be tailored to different sectors.”
Find out more about the Money Advice Trust’s new course on gambling, alcohol and substance mis-use here.