Addictions are vulnerable circumstances too

For a long time in the credit industry, the term ‘vulnerability’ went hand in hand with mental health.

Addictions are vulnerable circumstances too

Creditors have invested significantly in support for customers with mental health problems – and the good news is, this appears to be paying off. 

Our latest research from the University of Bristol’s personal finance research centre, a survey of 1573 creditor staff, co-authored with Colin Trend and Jamie Evans, indicated a marked positive improvement in disclosure management, attitudes and practices relating to mental health. Indeed, the proportion of staff reporting difficulty in knowing what to do after a disclosure fell from 27 percent in 2010 to 8 percent in 2016 – and if this holds for the wider creditor sector, this represents a great development.

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. 

Addictions are an important challenge. Our research shows that one in four frontline creditor staff find it difficult to talk about the issue of addictions with customers – more than any other type of vulnerable situation.  With one in ten frontline staff and one in four specialist staff encountering customers with an addiction most days or every day, this is not a small challenge.  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.

We found too that there is often little to no organisational policy to deal with addiction and only limited training, yet both of these are crucial for staff to have the confidence, knowledge, and skills to deal with these issues and support customers. 

At the Money Advice Trust, we are therefore launching a new face-to-face training course for creditor staff on identifying and supporting customers with addiction problems, in partnership with Royal Bank of Scotland and NatWest.

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. Our latest research – written with my Personal Finance Research Centre and Money Advice Trust hats on – maps out five steps that creditors can take.

1. Consider how addiction is currently viewed, internally. Staff are well placed to link customers to external helping services. For this to happen, organisations need to clearly signal to staff that an addiction is just like any other vulnerable situation.

2. Know the signs of addiction. There are specific cues that might indicate an underlying that staff can look out for: repeated expenditure on 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.

3. Staff need to be empowered to raise the issue with customers. Staff should never assume a potential addiction is a phase that a customer will just pass through. It has to be acted upon – with careful judgement and tact.

4. Understanding the addiction. When talking about addictions, customers will all react in different ways. Staff will need to be able to respond with a non-judgemental attitude and reassure the customer about the confidentiality of any information shared.

5. Just like any other type of customer in vulnerable circumstances, staff should always signpost customers to helplines and other support organisations.

The challenge now 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, we can deliver real improvements for customers.

For more information on the Money Advice Trust’s training for supporting customers with addictions, visit