In this episode of the FPA Podcast we speak to the authors of the Australian Financial Advisers’ Wellbeing Report 2021, Dr Adam Fraser and Dr John Molineux, who are joined by Marisa Broome, CFP® and Olivia Sarah-LeLacheur, the Transformation Director for AIA Australia the sponsors of the research, to discuss the mental health and wellbeing of financial planners.
Welcome to this episode of the FPA podcast. Today, our episode is sponsored by AIA Australia, a leading life health and wellbeing specialist with over 48 years experience and a commitment to help Australians live healthier, longer, better lives. In the podcast today, we’re going to be taking an in-depth look at a recent research project that explores wellbeing among financial advisors. This is research that’s been a joint initiative by AIA Australia, Deakin university and the e-lab. Today I’m joined by our four guests, Dr. Adam Fraser, Dr. John Molineux, Marissa Broome CFP, and Olivia Sarah-LeLacheur from AIA Australia. I’ll invite our guests to introduce themselves, and then we’ll discuss what the research has been all about and what the findings were.
The starting point was I was doing a keynote at a dealer group conference, and after I presented, I literally got bailed up by a group of advisors. In that keynote, I talked about some of the research we’d done with school principals and partners in professional services firms and the interventions that we created. They literally dialed me up and said, you got to do that for us, and they started to talk about how much they were struggling. They talked about the level of suicide in the industry, which I had no idea about. I wasn’t exposed to that at all. After the conversation, I couldn’t get it out of my head, and I thought, “We really have to help these people.”
So I contacted John from Deakin university. He was on board, and then we had to find someone to fund the research, and we spoke to various different groups in the industry. But I sat down with AIA, and I literally didn’t even get to finish my first sentence, they just went, “Hey, if it’s about wellbeing for advisors, we’ll fund that for sure.” They came on and sponsored the research, and we’ve been working together on the project. It’s one of the best collaborations I’ve ever done in fact, in terms of how great the experience was. In terms of the research, we wanted to answer three questions. What is the current state of financial advisors in Australia in terms of their mental health wellbeing, but also their ability to evolve and handle the change.
For the advisors that scored really highly in those areas, because some are struggling, but also some are flourishing. What was it that allowed them to flourish? Also we wanted to understand those that are evolving and innovating their businesses, what are their mindsets? What are their behaviors? How are they different? They’re the three questions we wanted to answer with our research.
In terms of when John and I planned the intervention and the research, we decided on we do a survey that measured various psychological constructs and really analyze where people are at. But we also wanted to learn a lot more about those advisors that were doing great. We didn’t just want to research the problem and go, “Yeah, you’re all suffering,” and leave it there. We wanted to also come up with solutions and answers. We decided to do interviews, really in depth interviews with advisors, we even got them to fill in a seven day diary study about what were they doing? Where were they spending their time? How did they feel, what impact did that task have on them? How did their mood change? We really analyze them on a deep level, and they were the three parts of the study.
Sure. I’ll concentrate on the thousand or so advisors that took the big survey. What we really noticed, and we were trying to measure a range of different outcome measures, but the two important ones were mental health and wellbeing. In relation to mental health risk, we found it was really quite disturbing, because compared with the average Australian adult, which the data’s recorded by the Australian Bureau of Stats. We actually found that in um the medium risk category, a 64% higher risk for financial advisors than the general Australian adult population, and in the high-risk category was actually 51% high risk, and they was trying to [inaudible 00:08:35]. That’s really concerning, and certainly alarmed us enough to make sure that our recommendations around what to do about it were going to be strong enough to counter that.
But also in relation to wellbeing in particular, one of the things you notice about wellbeing, we reviewed a range of factors here, but the two most related to work, were finding meaning in work. We found it was really strong sense of meaning in work from advisors and actually really liked what they were doing. However, they currently weren’t enjoying the work, and that was a disconnect. When we analyze a bit further, it really becomes the stressful issues that were ongoing at the time, really shone out there. The big one was government regulation and compliance demands was overwhelmingly the most stressful issue they faced. But also the educational requirements involved in those demands was the second highest, and particularly for some of the people who were not generic advisers, but specialists, they find that really difficult.
Also workload and cash flow in their business where we’re obviously demanding things, but you’d expect that in general, I think we noticed in particular, some other factors which were concerning, was around maybe 2% was considered leaving the profession, and that’s really high risk for the profession. I noticed that in previous reports there’s been a strong turnover in the industry, and that’s been very concerning. If nothing changes, you’d expect that to continue, particularly with the high levels of stress and so on.
But we also then compared it against other organizations and industries and people with looked at in some of the similar constructs, and we found that the advisors had the worst mental health, or the worst levels of wellbeing, the lowest levels of psychological flow that’s absorption in the work, highest stress levels and highest feelings of overload, and all of that and while we wanted to make sure that our recommendations were rigorous, and we hope that the organization and industries, our bodies and advisor groups will take on some of those recommendations so that we’re able to improve the status of the industry.
Thanks so much, John. Yes, a very concerning findings Indeed. Adam, you did speak about a group of advisors that were facing these same circumstances as their struggling peers, but found themselves in spite of this to be thriving and feeling more positive and energized by their work. Can you tell me a little bit about the characteristics that distinguished this particular advisor group that you found to be flourishing in spite of very challenging circumstances?
It was a fascinating part of the research and we identified a group called Thrivers, and to be in that group they had to have good wellbeing, they had to be enjoying the role, but also had to be innovating and evolving their business. What was fascinating is there’s no demographic that explains them, so it’s not like they’ve been in business for X number of years, or they have this type of business. You can’t actually explain them through any demographic label. What it really comes down to is their individual response to the pressure that they’re under. One of the most interesting things is we found that they had high levels of psychological flexibility. Now, what that means is that whenever we have some challenge in front of us, we create stories in our head about it, and we feel some emotion.
What we typically think is that people that handle stress better, have different stories and emotions to those that don’t handle the stress. When we looked at the groups, we expected the Thrivers to have a real positive outlook on the regulation and the changes that were affecting them, and the people that were struggling to have a real negative story. But what we found across the group is that their interpretation was exactly the same. To put it crudely, everyone thought that the regulation was not a great change or wasn’t handled very well. They’re all equally unhappy with the challenge that they faced and they all had quite a negative story about it, but what the Thrivers could do, is experience those stories and emotions, but still execute constructive behaviors. The people that were struggling, those negative stories and those negative emotions overwhelmed them and brand their behavior.
Whereas the Thrivers could literally say to themselves, “I’m not happy about this, I’m frustrated by it. I don’t think it’s being handled well,” but they were able to not let that control their behavior and they would go, “Yeah, but I have this goal,” or ‘I really find meaning and purpose in the role, so I’m going to do this constructive behavior.” The biggest one was their ability to manage their thoughts and emotions to do constructive things. Other things we found is that they look after their wellbeing. They’re much more proactive around that. They leverage their time really, really well. The people that were thriving, got administrative help, outsourced a lot of the compliance activity, set up their business so that they were spending more time with clients working on the business, evolving the business.
A couple other things is the Thrivers were much more engaged in industry support. They are more active with the associations. They regularly touch base and got support from other advisors. They had a tight network around them, and also they were just more open to change and evolution. That is what defines the Thrivers.
Is this some really interesting findings that we’ve heard from Adam and John. Olivia from an insurer’s perspective, what’s your view on these findings? What do they mean AIA as an insurer supporting financial advisors?
At AIA we’ve got an aspiration for Australia to be the healthiest and best protected nation on earth, and we can only achieve that in partnership with financial advisors, who we think play an absolutely crucial role in the financial mental and physical health and wellbeing of everybody in our nation. We were shocked, but not surprised at the seriousness of the data that came out of the research, we were very keen to help advisors articulate how they’re feeling in a way that could send a message, a very powerful message to regulators, to politicians, and to each other. Importantly for us, advisors who often work on their own and can feel quite isolated and quite lonely, now have a voice, a unified voice to talk about how they’re feeling, and they also have the opportunity to understand that there are advisors who are colleagues, friends, other partners in this broader financial services ecosystem, but are finding ways to be resilient and to thrive.
We really wanted to shine a spotlight on that because we are concerned when you’ve got a number like 40% plus of advisors saying that they want to leave the industry because of the stress, the pressure, the anxiety, etc. For us as a partner led business, we were very keen to support this research. We were very proud that we’ve been able to give a voice to advisors, and we’re very much looking forward to spreading the message around the activities, the mindsets and the behaviors that the Thrivers have. In fact, we did a piece of research at AIA Australia last year, where we looked at the eight key ingredients to live a healthier, longer, better life, and the number one ingredient was having an optimistic outlook. That optimistic outlook was one of the characteristics of the Thrivers in this particular research.
We’re very keen to help more people think about how they can tap into that optimistic outlook, but also as we’ve identified, really get back to the why. Their purpose for doing what they do in giving financial advice, and in being there for their clients when the unexpected happens. When there’s illness or injury, loss of a job, loss of a partner. All of those moments that are emotional moments, which most people don’t think they will talk to their financial advisor about. But in fact, it’s critical to the process of being a lifelong financial advisor and helping people achieve their financial goals.
Thanks, Olivia. Some important things to reflect on there, in terms of the role of advisors in stressful periods in the lives of their clients. Marisa, as a practicing advisor, were you concerned or surprised about the findings of the research from Dr. Fraser and Dr. Molineux in AIA?
Not surprised, and it really made it very real. In my role as the chair of the FPA, I had heard this from many people. Even as far back as 2019 when I was fairly new in the role as chair and I was out with our initial road shows, I had grown men cry on my shoulder because of the stresses they were under, so I knew that it was tough out there. This gave some numeric value to it. I’m glad that the FPA has been able to have some support services in place that’s actually been able to help our members. I’m not surprised, horrified, shocked, and the reasons behind that is not actually just about what we face day to day in our job. At the end of the day, financial planning is a profession where we help others, and therefore you’ve got to have a full bucket before you can actually go and help other people.
I think we do give an awful lot just by nature of our profession, but we don’t always have the skills to replenish ourselves to make sure we can keep doing that. Then you add on top of that, that whole uncertainty that so many of advisors have had. They’ve had the uncertainty of not knowing if they’ve got an employer, whether their license is still going to operate. They’ve got an overreach of compliance that’s happening within many licensees at the moment. There are simply some at the other end of the scale that are absolutely so busy, they just haven’t got a break out of their business. They’re working seven days a week. Then over recent 18 months or so, we’re in lockdown again in Sydney where I am, we’ve had just that whole COVID environment.
The stress just seems to be one thing on top of another thing, it seems to be relentless. I understand that it’s about a mindset thing about whether you can cope with it, but sometimes you just don’t know how, you don’t have the resources internally to actually change the mindset that you’re in.
Absolutely. As you’ve just said, there’s a whole host of circumstances that make it difficult to adopt that positive mindset. From your own experience as an advisor, what strategies have you used yourself to keep positive, to try and get into that pattern of behavior that Adam described as being so effective for the thriving group of financial advisors?
Look, I think I’ve been very lucky in that I was born with a glass is half full attitude. I don’t know if that’s something that’s made or not, but that’s certainly the way that I look at the world and I always have had. I’ve always felt very privileged, very lucky to be in the profession that I’m in. um I see the challenges, but I see the opportunity and the challenges. But all my life I’ve also, and again, this is about the way I was brought up, in that, because, and I’m not saying that I had an incredibly privileged upbringing. I didn’t. My parents worked really hard to give me the opportunities that I had, but they always gave back. Every sporting club we were involved in, every school we went to they volunteered all over the place. I’ve had this whole mindset about be grateful for the opportunities that have been presented to me, but give back to say, thank you for it and try and encourage other people into it.
It’s one of the reasons I ended up as the FPA chair is, I’ve been involved in committees, I’ve been involved in my community. I have a tribe of people around me, and it just so happens I now have this honor of being the chair, but that’s one of the things that actually fills my bucket. They’re not the only volunteering type work I’ve done in my life. I sit on the board of a medical research foundation. I sit on a global financial planning board. They’re the things that I know that actually helped me fill my bucket so that I can keep giving back out. That’s really important. I’m not always up. I’m not always thriving. No one can actually be thriving all the time, but I’ve also got an innate sense that I know when I actually have to say time out.
There are Sundays that I can spend Sunday afternoon in my jammies, watching rubbish on television, just things that I need. I also have a dog, so the dog is probably the thing I love the most in my life, more than my children, more than my husband, and I spend a lot of time outside walking with that dog and making sure that I have that timeout. I’m lucky I live near the Harbor in Sydney. I get to walk around it. When we used to commute in and out of the office, I used to try and catch the ferry when I could. All these things helped me keep my bucket full so that I can actually keep that thriving mentality. I have to say, I’ve just been on road shows for the FPA. We managed to do 31 of the 33 of them. I wasn’t at all of them. But I’m seeing the opportunity just from some people that are in that thriving bucket that I’ve been able to actually reach out to.
Maybe it’s because of my mindset, maybe it’s because of the stakeholder conversations I have, but in our profession, I can see more opportunity than negative. I can see that we’ve got this potential for enormous acceptance within the community for increasing demand for people who need advice. For me, that glass is half full mindset means that I can only see the opportunity. Yeah some days are tough, but I can actually see the end goal, and I always keep that end goal in mind.
(20.47) Thanks Marissa for those insights. Adam based on the research, what advice can we offer to the professional financial advice community on their strategies or tactics for having more of a glass half full mindset and approach as Marissa does?
That’s a huge question, just because we’ve researched them so deeply. I think one of the most encouraging things about our research is understanding the Thrivers have a set of skills, both lifestyle and psychological, that are teachable. It’s not like you’re born this way and if you’re not, then bad luck. What we’re doing is we’ve designed an intervention to start teaching advisors these sets of skills to embed in their lifestyle. Obviously from practical level of people listening to this, it is about getting more support, it is about practicing the work-life balance. It’s about clarity of goals. Then obviously being more flexible with, even though you feel a certain way, focusing on, what’s the most constructive behavior I can do right now. Here’s my impression of this.
We’ve talked about stats, we’ve talked about numbers, but the reality is that there are human beings behind these numbers. Advisers are wives, they’re husbands, they’re partners, they’re parents. The biggest thing I’ve learned about financial advisors is they genuinely care about their clients, and deeply. One of the most things they say is not about themselves. They go, “These regulations don’t allow me to help the people I really want to help. What you’ve got is a group who genuinely care, and when they can’t support people in the way they want, it hurts them. Actually, the other thing is that we’re dealing with a group of people who are emotionally hurt by what they’ve been through. Marisa you talked about men crying on your shoulder. I’ve got countless emails from advisors saying, “Thank you so much for doing this research.”
They’re thanking me, they’re thanking John, they’re thanking AIA for putting some money to this. We’ve got a group who are wounded, but also very stoic. They’re pushing this stuff deep down inside, and because the industry is male dominated, they tend not to acknowledge or focus on that. My advice would be obviously do all the lifestyle stuff, but also take some time to think about how you’re feeling. I know it’s a non masculine thing, but how are you coping? Do you need to talk to someone about this? Do you need to talk to someone around how this experience has affected you? I suppose it would be that vulnerability to start practicing some self-care because you have been through a really difficult experience, that is not only physically draining, but emotionally draining.
Thanks Adam. Those are really important words that I’m sure a lot of advisors will be heartened to hear, that they’re not in this alone. Probably a very, very important take away from this research. Further to that, perhaps Olivia and John, you could both speak to me about your thoughts on where to from here, now that now that we have this research available, what next? What other benefits can we hope to bring to advice professionals on the basis of the research that’s been done?
I think the research gives us the opportunity to remind ourselves about the fundamentals of living well, thinking well, moving well and eating well. One of the things that really struck me about the Thrivers is that they all do something that is good for their physical wellbeing on a regular basis. Marisa talked about walking her dog, others would talk about going for a walk and listening to a podcast or music. Just being out in nature exploring the five senses doing something that contributes in a positive way on a regular basis physically, and of course mentally as well. One of the things that struck me from the research is that people identified a number of different stakeholders that they could work with in their day-to-day lives to help them manage their mental wellbeing. It might be talking to another financial advisor, going out for lunch, just having some time where they could talk about the challenges.
As Adam noted, men won’t often talk openly about how they’re feeling emotionally, but I think there’s opportunity for people to find their tribe, to talk, to connect and to find a way to just share the things that are concerning them, but also to focus on the opportunity that lies ahead for the financial advice profession, and tap into that opportunity to continue to deliver on their why on a daily basis. Also, looking at some of the people who traditionally you might not talk to for support. It could be the business development manager from one of the product issuers, it could be a member of your association in one of the working groups or committees that you might be on, or it might be somebody from your licensee or dealer group.
Thinking about all of the people that are in the financial services ecosystem, who’ve all got a role to play because ultimately we’re all driven by the same thing, which is we want more Australians to get great advice to prosper financially, and we need to all be fit and healthy and resilient to be able to do that. I’m hoping that the research that has been done and shared today is merely the starting point for a conversation that takes place over many years, where we can all work together and support each other, and continue to share those great ideas as to how to thrive. Because even if it’s just one new idea that makes a small difference in your day, that can make an enormous difference to all of the people that you touch every day.
I totally agree, One of the findings we had was that people who practice regular recovery, it could be a exercise, some form of meditation or mindfulness activity, and maybe even just doing a hobby. Those kinds of things really do make a difference as Olivia was saying, and people who also a bit more adaptable, who can learn to be a bit more flexible about the way they do things. Those people also are more likely to thrive in a situation. We noticed with one of the factors, which is called psychological capital, and that people who are confident, who have hope, who are resilient, and also have optimism about the future, they actually thrive better.
So how can you do that when you’re in a situation of stress? You reach out to others and seek help, just as Olivia was saying. It’s really important to grasp those opportunities where you can, and really get that support you need and find out about how to do these practices that others are doing. Undertake training, go to a development program, find out how you can be more adaptable and more resilient. Then you really find that the stress starts to drop and you’re able to cope better with the challenges that this particular situation or contexts bring..
The other thing that we need to do as a financial planners is to understand our client’s circumstances. I think sometimes if you’re so clouded in your own head, you can’t actually see the full vision, but you can also not identify that they’re in crisis. It’s really important to make sure that you’re feeding every sense of the word so that you can really do your job to the best of your ability. My second thing, and it’s a plug to a service that the FPA is able to offer, which is FPA wellbeing.
If you are an FPA member and you need to speak to someone and you want it to be someone that you don’t know, it’s anonymous, it’s confidential. We don’t know who calls. We don’t know what the issues are. It’s simply a service that we’ve got available. So please get in contact with FPA wellbeing because they can actually offer you that anonymous, independent support that might just help you get through and change that mindset.
One of the things we found is that the more people are struggling, the less likely they were to get support. I would say to these advisors, and this has been a very emotional project to work on. I’ve had some advisors email me directly going, “I’m having some really dark thoughts. I’m having suicidal thoughts,” and I’ve called them straight away and just said, “Hi,”. We’re not mucking around here. You’ve got to go talk to someone, take steps to do this. But we just find that many people are so hesitant to take those proactive steps. As Marisa was saying in terms of the associations, even you look at AIA and their vitality program and how many resources they have, it’s starting to tap into the proactive things around you that can help.
I just think that, I hope this research not only helps advisors in the industry, but also regulators pay attention to it and think about, “Well, how can we work with this group who are very important to society?” They are critical. How do we want more people joining the profession than wanting to leave? It’s a very important for Australians to have good advice, to have good cover, and I hope this research enables that in some way.
Thanks Adam. Thank you to all of you for speaking about this very critical research project and what it means for financial advice and for the, as you say, the many Australians who benefit from it. I’m sure we’re going to see a lot more interest, both from financial advisors and the wider financial advice community in these findings, and the actions that they put forward as being really important to a thriving advice community. Thanks for your time today, everyone.