Recharge for better employee wellbeing

Sovereign is proud to now be part of the AIA Australia family. With this our employees now enjoy some fantastic benefits including four Recharge Days per year. Our people can take one day a quarter in addition to annual and sick leave, giving time to take a break and relax, spoil themselves, spend time with friends and family or boost their mental or physical wellbeing. Here, our Chief Customer Officer Sharron Botica shares how she likes to spend her recharge days…

“Since the acquisition of Sovereign by AIA in July it has been very busy for many of our people (leading up to the date of sale and now as we work to bring our two companies together).  Often companies can take an approach of working employees so hard that performance issues and sickness can hit hard. But not at AIA and Sovereign.  One of the new benefits available to our team are four ‘recharge’ days per year.

“As an Executive, it’s really important to me that I role model wellbeing. For my first Recharge Day I put the phone on airplane mode, added an out of office to my emails that said I was on my Recharge Day and wouldn’t be replying to emails and had a great day with a massage, coffee and finished with wine and dinner with friends.  Personally perfect for me to recharge!

“Companies need to find new ways to support employee wellbeing, at AIA and Sovereign we’re on a mission to help our customers and the community live longer healthier lives. It’s always important to start at home with your employee wellbeing.  It’s a big investment but we reckon we’ll reap the rewards with improved productivity and employee engagement.”

For more information about AIA Groups acquisition of Sovereign, visit

Our proud, yet troubled, public health system



I, like many New Zealanders, feel proud and very fortunate to have a universal tax funded healthcare system that means kiwis can largely access healthcare without having to pay for it directly. But the reality is that this care must be paid for by someone and as a country we are currently failing to adequately fund our health system.

Health funding, at 21% of government expenditure, is the second highest category of crown expenses and at over $16B spent in the year ending 30 June 2017 is the equivalent of 6% of New Zealand’s GDP. While this may appear to be a significant investment, New Zealand funds less healthcare per capita than a number of OECD nations including Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada and most of Scandinavia.

Given the finite level of funding available it is unsurprising that District Health Boards (DHBs) and organisations such as Pharmac need to make difficult funding choices to work within the constraints that are presented to them. Recent examples from many DHBs highlight significant infrastructure, equipment failure and budgetary issues, reportedly driven by chronic underfunding.

It’s easy to get lost in the blame game as the previous and current governments attempt to deflect attention across the aisle. The reality is this is a longstanding issue fuelled by the system’s complexity and our prevailing ideology regarding “free healthcare”.

Currently New Zealand has 20 DHBs servicing a population of a little less than 5 million people. I question along with others, whether this number of DHBs is necessary. Most use different systems and processes leading to inconsistencies in treatment at a national level and a poor experience for patients who move between DHBs. Reducing this complexity and centralising more services would go a long way towards improving outcomes and relieving budgetary pressure.

Additionally it is time we as a country acknowledged the greater role the private health sector could play in relieving some of the burden. The private health sector performs particularly well in the area of elective surgery, one where the public system consistently struggles, and is constantly building further capacity to deliver more services.

Private health insurance plays a key role in supporting the wider private health sector and helps avoid the constraints represented by finite government funding. It is a way that those who choose to (and can afford to) can take more responsibility for their own healthcare needs. My parents live within the catchment area for Counties Manukau DHB and I am thankful they have retained their health insurance. If they do require non-emergency healthcare at least they won’t receive their care in buildings of “high concern“.

Picture credit:

Mindfulness: Where to start?

tim-goedhart-334149 mindfulness

Mindfulness is all about focusing on the present rather than worrying about the past or future. It’s a tool that you can use to manage the busy nature of modern life, increase your productivity and improve overall wellbeing.

It can be hard to know where to start with the practice of mindfulness, so we teamed up with mindfulness trainer Maya Nova to create eight short videos that can help anyone experience the benefits of mindfulness immediately.

Episode 1: Give rise to happiness Mindfulness can be as simple as looking outside and being aware of your surroundings. Watch now 
Episode 2: Our bodies are nature Quick reminder: Our bodies are nature. Watch now
Episode  3: Thoughts are just thoughts We have a tendency to believe all thoughts as facts. Discover the importance of pausing and asking yourself ‘Is this thought true?’. Watch now
Episode  4: Continual partial attention Lacking focus? You may be at risk of continuous partial attention. Watch now.
Episode  5: Complex problems, simple solutions This simple analogy may help you overcome obstacles. Watch now.
Episode 6: Existing in the moment Exist in the moment so you don’t miss out on real life. Watch now
Episode 7: Permission to be happy Time to check in with yourself and discover what makes you happy. Watch now.
Episode 8: Meditation for beginners Try this guided meditation for beginners. Watch now


Not all breast cancers are created equal

One in nine New Zealand women will be diagnosed with breast cancer over their lifetime giving us the 7th highest incidence rate of this disease in the world. I was fortunate enough to attend a summit hosted by Breast Cancer Cure, New Zealand’s only not-for-profit organisation solely dedicated to finding a cure for breast cancer through research. The summit featured leading oncologists and researchers talking about the very complex nature of breast cancer and how to treat it effectively.

Having worked in the private health insurance industry for more than a decade I was surprised by how much I learned over the course of this day with the real stand out for me being that all breast cancers are not created equal. The disease differs from woman to woman depending on a host of complex genetic factors and the key take away for me as an insurance professional, and as a woman, is the importance of early detection.

Genetic factors

An important factor in successfully treating breast cancer is first identifying exactly what sort of tumour a patient has. One of the key differentiators between tumours is how they respond to oestrogen. Approximately three quarters of breast cancers in New Zealand are hormone responsive tumours. This means that the hormones a woman’s body creates impacts on the rate at which her tumour grows and spreads, therefore treatment to reduce or remove the production of these hormones is helpful in fighting the cancer.

Another variant are triple negative breast cancers (TNBC) that represent about 15% of breast cancer diagnosed in New Zealand and tests negative for all three receptors (oestrogen, progesterone and HER2). These cancers tend to impact younger women and have very limited treatment options.

In addition, another important variable is whether the tumour is HER2 positive or negative. HER2 positive cancer is generally more aggressive than HER2 negative and as such requires more targeted treatment such as Trastuzumab (Herceptin) used in combination with more traditional chemotherapy.

Early detection

It is easy to feel helpless in the face of genetics, but overall the strongest message throughout the day was how important early detection is. Patients diagnosed with breast cancer at stage one, irrespective of their tumour’s genetic type, have far higher survival rates as the disease has not yet spread. Conversely being diagnosed at stage four is a grim prospect.

Regular screening is an important factor in diagnosing cancers before they can be felt and all women, especially those not yet eligible for publically funding screening should be checking themselves regularly. Our Private Health Plus product offers a contribution towards regular screening and comprehensive cover for cancer care should a diagnosis unfortunately occur.

Pic credit: William Bout, Unsplash.

How the DIY diagnosis will shape insurance

I recently stumbled on this site, which is crowdsourcing voices as part of a study to determine whether Parkinson’s disease can be detected by analysing phone-quality voice recordings. The research aims to build on recent studies that successfully demonstrated that the disease can be diagnosed by analysing speech recorded using high quality audio devices. The hope is to develop an app to test for Parkinson’s disease.

The rise of low cost diagnostic testing has the capacity to transform the insurance industry in a number of ways.

Genetic tests open up the opportunity for more individualised care. In 2013, Angelina Jolie publicly announced that she had undergone a prophylactic procedure to remove her breasts because she faced a heightened risk of breast cancer as a carrier of a defective BRCA gene (the gene produces proteins responsible for supressing tumours). In the coming months, screening of the defective gene rose by 37%. Three years later, New Zealand health insurer, Southern Cross, introduced an allowance to enable high risk members to seek prophylactic mastectomy treatment. Amongst the eligibility criteria is a positive genetic test confirming a defective BRCA gene.

Low cost testing also creates the opportunity for earlier diagnosis and treatment. In the case of some degenerative disorders, such as Parkinson’s Disease or Multiple Sclerosis, early symptoms are generally vague. Low cost testing provides an opportunity to screen patients for a broader range of conditions at an earlier stage, bringing forward diagnosis and treatment. Health funders, including the public sector, are generally reluctant to cover routine screening on the basis of cost-benefit. However, the value equation is changing as tests become more cost effective. Shameless promotion: Sovereign Private Health Plus provides a $500 health screening allowance (every three years after three years).

Finally, the availability of at-home diagnostic tests allow people to screen themselves in the privacy of their own home. We are familiar with at-home pregnancy tests but did you know that you can now screen yourself for HIV, Hepatitis, or elevated cholesterol? Whilst the democratisation of medical information is empowering, it does create disclosure risks for the insurer: information gained outside the traditional medical system may be undiscoverable to insurers, which increases the opportunity for anti-selection. The insurance system cannot function efficiently if customers avoid disclosing known risk factors.

As with any new technology, changes in diagnostic medicine bring both threats and opportunities. The challenge for insurers is to find a way to embrace these developments to enhance, rather than restrict, the customer value proposition.

Living with bowel cancer

Working in the insurance industry means that you get very comfortable talking about things that other people find quite confronting, things like dying, becoming disabled or developing cancer. One topic that a lot of people really don’t want to talk about is bowel cancer and I can understand why. It affects an area of the body that isn’t usually discussed in polite company and the on-going impacts on people’s lives aren’t for the squeamish.

But bowel cancer kills more people in New Zealand than breast and prostate cancer combined so it’s time we started talking about it. Given its bowel cancer awareness month I wanted to share my story as I live with its effects every day.

My partner developed bowel cancer in his twenties (he is now in his forties) which was successfully treated surgically with no need for chemotherapy or radiotherapy. I’d love to say this is where the story ends, but it doesn’t. Due to the nature of the surgery he had he has on-going effects every day and is also subjected to regular invasive surveillance procedures.

Because he had almost his entire large bowel removed he has to take medication every single time he eats. The medication is designed to slow down his digestive system so if he doesn’t take it an evening out ends pretty quickly. This means I have to keep a good supply in my handbag just in case he forgets his pills. On the other hand though, if he takes too many pills he can get a painful bowel blockage.

We’ve also had to go to the hospital in the middle of the night a few times when he has suffered bowel obstructions brought on by the scar tissue surrounding his intestines and remaining large bowel. Thankfully he has never needed surgery to correct this but I’m scared that one day he will.

Because he developed bowel cancer at a very young age and his father died of it in his fifties, he needs to have regular monitoring. This means every two years he has a colonoscopy, every four years a gastroscopy and at times when his on-going pain has gotten really bad, MRIs to see if there is anything else going on. Every time he goes in for these checks I worry that this will be the time it comes back, or that his specialist will miss something or he’ll suffer some complication associated with the procedure.

So while my partner is cancer free, we will never really be free of bowel cancer.

Guys, we need to talk.

The mental and physical health of men needs to improve. At present the life expectancy of New Zealand men is four years lower than females (Statistics NZ) and last year 70% of New Zealanders who took their own lives were male (Coroner’s Report).

I’ve built my career taking care of New Zealand’s top athletes including the All Blacks and the Warriors. I’m also the Chief Medical Officer at Sovereign. People often ask me what I think every man should do to take charge of his health. Here’s what I tell them:

  • Invest in a cardio risk assessment with your doctor. This should include blood pressure, BMI measure, cholesterol, and a discussion on diet and exercise. If aged over 50 have a chat about bowel and prostate cancer screening (more New Zealanders die of bowel cancer than prostate or breast cancer).
  • Get a skin check. We’re heading into summer now so it’s time to visit a clinic and get checked out. Remember to load up on sun screen and wear a hat and sunglasses when you are outside. If you are getting into the water a rash shirt helps to protect your body from the sun’s rays.
  • Regular exercise including some form of resistance exercise (body weight). Try to do something five times a week.
  • Moderation on alcohol, especially over the festive season.
  • Eat well – lots of vegetables and fruit and steer clear of too many sweet treats.
  • Be honest about mental health – if something isn’t feeling right talk to a professional who can provide guidance.
  • Don’t smoke.



Insurance is as important for the mind as it is the body

Five Ways to WellbeingMental health is no different to physical health: we can no less escape the constraints of our minds than we can the frailties of our body.

If we look at the numbers, we find that one in six Kiwis will at some point in their lives be diagnosed with a common mental health disorder. Many more will experience episodic challenges.

As an insurance guy and an actuary, I am passionate about the vital role that insurance can play in helping New Zealanders who are experiencing mental health issues.

Sovereign’s disability income claims data shows that mental health issues tend to require more recovery time than other health issues. About 50% of mental health claims remain open one year into the claim. This compares with 15% of injury clams and 35% of illness claims. In fact, the average length of a mental health claim is about 260 days – the only other condition that comes even close is cancer at about 210 days (the next highest duration is cardiovascular at 140 days).

We understand that our customers need more than financial support. That’s why we take a holistic approach to claims and spend considerable effort supporting customers with their recovery journey. For example, we offer customers access to a dedicated case manager to help co-ordinate private psychological support, occupational therapy, vocational re-training, and return to work support. Helping to support customers back to living their lives not only makes good financial sense but is a core part of our brand promise: being the difference in life’s moments of truth.

Several months ago, I had the privilege of facilitating a mental health panel at our bi-annual Adviser conference. Amongst the panellists was Shaun Robinson, CEO of the Mental Health Foundation. Shaun spoke of the mental health challenges and opportunities facing our nation. I especially connected with the “Five Ways to Wellbeing” – simple, evidence-based actions that help us maintain positive mental health. These are:

  • Connecting (me whakawhanaunga) – connecting with our families, our friends, and our communities gives us a sense of belonging and a wider purpose in our lives.
  • Giving (tukau) – giving our time, energy, attention, or financial resources is shown to significantly improve our own happiness;
  • Take notice (me aro tonu) – slowing ourselves down each day to notice ourselves, others, and our environment is both calming and helps us focus on those things that matter;
  • Learning (me ako tonu) – people are curious beings. Indulging our interests is both incredibly enjoyable and helps to give our lives a sense of balance; and
  • Being active (me kori tonu) – physical activity helps to keep us healthy, resilient, alert, and feeling good.

If we think of our mental health as a bank account, regular “deposits” of these five actions helps us to accumulate a surplus of positive mental wellbeing to guard against the inevitable bumps in the road.

Just feel better

Wellness is about having the energy and vitality to do the things you love. To have a healthy body that doesn’t hold you back and to have a balance in your life that allows you to enjoy the small things.

With this in mind I developed the Wheel of Wellness, a model to help you understand the different components that create Wellness in your life.

Take a look at the Wheel of Wellness here, explore each of the four health essentials videos and get an understanding of how they all piece together.

Wellness is not about extremes, and it’s not achieved in one day, one workout or one good meal. Wellness is created when we work on our nutrition, exercise, sleep and happiness equally and consistently.

Here are 10 simple things you can do to get started:

  1. Build a foundation of movement: Aim to get 10,000 steps in every day and spend more of your day standing.
  2. Eat whole foods that you prepare at home.
  3. Organise your evening so you can get an additional half an hour of sleep and keep building on it. You should aim to reach 8-9 hours per night.
  4. Recognise the things that make you happy and do more of them: Write a list of the 10 things that bring you joy and start to bring these into your week in some way.
  5. Stay in touch with people who are important to you.
  6. Devote a little bit of time every week to yoga, stretching or massage.
  7. Drink more water.
  8. Get outside – whether it’s for a walk, exercise or a meeting.
  9. Focus on making the last three hours of your day relaxed so that you can have a quality night’s sleep – this means no large meals, screens or phones.
  10. Keep building on all of these steps.

Follow Nicola on Facebook or join her in the Take Charge NZ group for more advice and support.

Growth or fixed mindset – which are you?

There are two mindsets people tend to embody – a “fixed” or a “growth” mindset.

Those with a fixed mindset tend to believe their intelligence, personal attributes and skills are permanent and something they were born with. They spend most of their days keeping up appearances by proving these qualities to others and avoiding failure. This is their belief of success, but when failure occurs people with a fixed mindset question their competence and self-worth while being overly concerned of being judged by others.

On the contrary, those with a growth mindset look at life in an entirely different light. They view their skills, personality traits and qualities as something they can develop and enhance through their own efforts. They believe change and growth is always possible and necessary to succeed. Failures are not seen as flaws, but opportunities to learn.  They want to challenge themselves, push their limits and strive to achieve things that others may not think they are capable of.

Virtually all people who are admired for their strength, talent and perseverance are shown to have a growth mindset. These people have accomplished great things, have a zest for learning and show great resilience to conquer their goals in life.

The good news is – you can transform your mindset.

Start noticing

You may think you are a person who has a growth mindset, but is that really the case? Become aware of how you react to your failures, opportunities or challenges you face.  Is there a little negative voice in your head when make a mistake or discouraging you from pushing yourself a little harder? Being aware of your mindset is the first step to creating change.

Allow for constructive criticism

No one likes hearing negative opinions about their work, personality or abilities but constructive criticism can be so helpful in our development and growth.  Seeking out the opinions from those people you admire and taking their comments will help you to succeed.

Challenge yourself 

During a workout when you think you have nothing left, push yourself a little harder.  Challenge yourself to complete a task even if you think you’re mentally stretched or it’s beyond your abilities. Those in a growth mindset visualize themselves accomplishing the challenge at hand.

Learn from your mistakes

If you embody a growth mindset, you understand that the failures and mistakes you make are great learning tools.

Curb your self-talk

Rather than thinking ‘I can’t do it’, try saying to yourself ‘at the next attempt, I will accomplish it’.

You have a choice in how you perceive life and how others perceive you. You can challenge yourself to achieve your goals and make your journey a memorable one. It is this strength, resilience and drive people admire the most.

So how are you going to live your life – with a fixed mindset or a growth mindset?

Join the conversation in Sovereign’s Take Charge NZ group on Facebook.