Monday 29th June 2020
Ulrike Decoene is the Head of Communication, Brand and Corporate Responsibility for the AXA Group, the first global insurance brand and a worldwide leader in insurance and asset management. She also leads the AXA Group’s Women in Insurance Initiative. In this interview, she spoke with the Financial Alliance for Women about the toll COVID-19 has had on the Insurance sector, as well as lessons learned from the pandemic and how it has accelerated innovation to create a better healthcare ecosystem.
Alliance: Six months after the official announcement of the pandemic, how has the Insurance sector been affected worldwide? Are you able to quantify or assess the monetary value of this impact?
Ulrike Decoene (UD): The COVID-19 crisis will remain a significant historic event for the insurance sector worldwide given both its unprecedented nature and the breadth of the impact it has had, although it is still is too early to fully quantify the losses. The lockdown measures, implemented in almost all countries, had major consequences for our economies and societies. Insurers are directly and indirectly affected through, for example, event cancellation, business interruption and credit insurance, but also via their exposure to financial markets.
Alliance: The pandemic has laid bare weaknesses in national healthcare systems, particularly in many emerging markets. As a global insurance provider, what role is AXA playing in supporting both the public and private sectors to create a better healthcare ecosystem?
UD: Given the size and severity of the crisis, many healthcare networks and hospitals came under tremendous strain. In this context, one of AXA’s solidarity responses was to mobilize its own medical networks to support local healthcare systems, finance research for a vaccine, and provide local hospitals with personal protective equipment (PPE). AXA is also in partnership with the 101 Fund, a network of 1,200 intensive care centers in more than 60 countries that aims to share real-time information from each unit to accelerate the improvement of therapeutic protocols. This funding will also make it possible to set up accelerated training for caregivers in order to increase the staffing capacity of these units.
Beyond these solidarity initiatives, this crisis has reinforced our strategic convictions to develop our capabilities in the healthcare sector. It has revealed our collective underestimation of health risks, and in the future, communities will expect major insurers to play an even bigger role in helping them better protect themselves. We are in a good position to meet this demand, particularly in developing countries such as Colombia and Egypt, where we have deployed a “vertical integration” strategy by developing our own healthcare networks. In other markets, we are leveraging our expertise and leadership in telemedicine. The pandemic has shown us how promising this solution is in providing everyone with easy access to quality healthcare advice.
Alliance: In what ways will the COVID-19 crisis accelerate innovation (insuretech, healthtech, digital financial services)? Have there been any behavioral differences by gender?
UD: COVID-19 has been an incredible accelerator of digital services in all areas of our daily lives. As such, digital technology has the power to transform healthcare. For example, the pandemic has accelerated the demand for telemedicine services among other healthcare solutions we offer. Over the last few months we have seen usage volumes grow 3 to 4 times in France alone. In some markets, such as Belgium, we have even opened this service to the general public for free.
Concerning the user profile, before the pandemic, 60 to 70 percent of our teleconsultation users were women. This is not a surprise: 80 percent of all online searches are related to health and most of the time related to baby care or parenting. Just imagine how a 24/7 remote access to a medical professional is a clear answer to tackle the time scarcity women experience. Digital services drive access, and the pandemic has accelerated use of digital services among men, as well. In France, for instance, in March and April, the profile of the users was 56.5% women and 43.5% men.
Alliance: AXA has built a strong brand image throughout the years and in such times, maintaining brand credibility and a positive relationship with clients are key. What has been your approach to communications through this crisis?
UD: During this crisis, communication has played an essential role in engaging with our different stakeholders. Internally, keeping our employees worldwide connected while working from home for over two months was a key priority. We checked on their morale and their well-being several times throughout the crisis. We also wanted to share as much information as possible with our customers to provide them with the right level of support and help them navigate the storm.
This crisis has also called upon private sector companies to contribute to governmental solidarity efforts. In France, AXA is the largest private contributor to the solidarity recovery fund created by the authorities to support small businesses and independent workers. It was key for us, given our strong societal DNA, to take responsibility.
Last but not least, along with the overall insurance sector, we have also taken positions in public debates on insurability and the limits of our actions as insurers, notably on business interruption. It has not been an easy debate, and it has shown us that our industry has a lot of work to do in explaining the principles of insurance, such as mutualization, and in defining new insurance mechanisms for new types of global risks and threats.
Alliance: What key business continuity measures did you undertake as an organization to keep the business running while securing a healthy working environment for your workforce? What changes do you expect to see in the workforce of the insurance sector post COVID-19?
UD: In this exceptional context, our priority as an employer is to ensure the safety and protection of our employees while guaranteeing the continuity of our activities in order to preserve the economic fabric of the countries in which we are present. From the beginning, preemptive measures included allowing employees to work remotely, providing adequate health and hygiene advice, ceasing any business trips to or from affected areas, and establishing a dedicated escalation process to report any potential infection among staff. All entities around the world were advised to implement specific travel policies and guidance. We provided employees with precautionary guidance, including public authorities’ instructions and updates.
Since then, bolstered by equipment supporting telework and the implementation of collaborative tools (Teams, Klaxoon) on our work stations, working remotely for all staff was a success.
Beyond these existing individual support schemes, there was also a broad range of options to allow our employees to turn this period into an opportunity for learning or personal development ( through daily routines, online training courses, positive psychology measures, yoga online classes, etc.).
In Asia, we have taken our learnings from this transition, incorporated our deep focus on employee mental well-being, and crafted easy-to-adapt reference materials that other companies can implement. It is co-authored with Columbia’s World Health Organization Collaborating Centre for Capacity Building and Training in Global Mental Health. The guide is directed to business leaders and provides a strong focus on employee mental well-being while sharing practical resources and support to help managers.
Alliance: SMEs around the globe are perhaps the most affected segment of the economy in terms of sustainability. How is AXA supporting its SME clients—women owned/led in particular?
UD: In many countries, we have been supporting small companies and independent workers by maintaining coverage and guarantees even when the policyholder cannot make immediate premium payments.
We have extended guarantees for specific needs, such as the coverage of cyberattacks for companies, since most of their workers are working remotely, like we are.
Wherever we are present, we are playing a role and honoring contracts, particularly in health and provident insurance. Sometimes we have even gone beyond that, by making exceptional solidarity efforts. AXA has mobilized nearly €400 million euros to help its clients and society: €200 million in premiums redistributed to our professional clients and SMEs and €175 million to support national solidarity efforts.
In early May, we announced an additional investment of €500 million to reinforce the equity of small and mid-sized companies. The idea is to provide a solution for the recovery of the companies after the government measures. If the measures put in place by the government during containment were absolutely critical for the survival of SMEs and mid-caps—such as postponement of fiscal and social deadlines, obtaining short-term financing such as loans guaranteed by the State, asset loans, rebound loans, etc.—these companies will now have to enter the recovery phase.
This new envelope allocated by AXA France aims to support its reconstruction phase. Investments will be made in both capital and bonds in order to strengthen the financial structure of companies. Part of the management fees will be donated to the AXA Heart in Action association and CAPZA For Good, which hire AXA and CAPZA employees to serve society around solidarity actions.
Alliance: What is the major takeaway from the impact of the pandemic that you would like to share with our readers?
UD: This crisis may be a tipping point for the insurance sector. On the one hand, it has revealed the sector’s role to prevent and mitigate health risks. While major pandemics seemed to be a thing of the past, this incident shows us that the risk is still present and that the “protection gap” remains significant. Moving forward, people will be even more demanding regarding their health.
On the other hand, the crisis reveals a transformation in the nature of risk. Pandemics, cyber risk, climate change—the threats are global and complex. They require coordinated responses between countries, with strong insurers to absorb the shocks in close partnerships with governments. Overall, it has revealed a dire need for increased risk management skills at every level of society and economy. We see this as a call to action.
This is why we have launched, first of all in France, a strategy to bring together the State and private players to set up a mechanism to cover risks linked to pandemics, as is already the case for natural disasters. Only joint action by the public and private sectors, as well as pooling over time, can make it possible to cover such risks.