Canadian Underwriter

Brokers, how are you coping with your clients’ rising incivility?

August 23, 2022   by David Gambrill

Angry young male customer dissatisfied with contract terms of conditions.

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Famed Canadian civility may be a thing of the past, and Canadian P&C brokers would probably know best, since they have been caught in the crossfire of frustrated clients and unprofitable insurers for the better part of two years during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The customer is always right,” Christine Porath, a professor of management at Georgetown University, wrote in an Aug. 22 online post for Harvard Business Review. “But what if the customer is rude, angry, or even hostile? How does that affect those who witness or experience it?….

“Unfortunately, frontline workers are bearing the brunt of this uptick in incivility. It’s as if they’ve gone from ‘essential workers’ to punching bags, as weary, annoyed, stressed-out people, customers, and patients unleash their anxieties and frustrations.”

No known study has been done showing the amount of abuse Canadian insurance brokers have had to endure from angry clients during COVID-19. Frustrations from not being able to get insurance at a reasonable cost in the middle of an ongoing hard market – or not being able to get any insurance at all — were no doubt exacerbated by the polarizing debates around COVID-19 and vaccines.

In Canadian Underwriter’s 2022 National Broker Survey, brokers across Canada reported stressful times, with almost a quarter of them citing this as a reason they would likely leave the profession over the next three years.

Overall, the survey found 24% of respondents were likely or highly likely to leave, compared to 61% who said they were unlikely or highly unlikely to change careers. The remaining 15% were neutral.

Said one anonymous broker in the survey who indicated they would be likely to leave: “The public is increasingly becoming more difficult [and the] industry is becoming more litigious – higher risk of clients claiming E&Os against the broker. [The] company will throw [the] broker under the bus.

“[There is] not enough protection for the broker against the public. Insurance is thought of worse than lawyers now,” they added. “More and more I think about what this does to my mental health and wonder if it’s worth it.”

What are the psychological effects of all that uncivil behaviour heaped on service-industry workers?

Emotional exhaustion, leading to burnout, and workforce shortages. Canadians are witnessing this phenomenon first-hand in the medical community, with hospital emergency room closures resulting from inadequate staffing levels, which are partly attributable to burnout.

One South Korean study of frontline service workers during the pandemic found customer incivility was even more damaging than working for an abusive supervisor in a toxic workplace.

“[Policy makers and practitioners] need to pay more attention to customer incivility because this stressor is more harmful to [frontline service employees] than abusive supervision in the pandemic situation, said the August 21, 2021 study, Impacts of customer incivility and abusive supervision on employee performance: a comparative study of the pre- and post-COVID-19 periods.

‘Unlike abusive supervision, which can be monitored and corrected by leadership evaluation and training, customer incivility is difficult to eliminate because of customers’ anonymity and the unequal power structure between customers and service providers,” noted the study’s authors, Yuhyung Shin Won-Moo Hur and Hansol Hwang. “Thus, a more realistic solution to customer incivility would be to enhance [frontline service employees’] coping capabilities.”

Stress management programs can encourage relaxation and mindfulness training, the authors wrote. Also, training programs can promote emotion-regulation abilities and perspective-taking. Service organizations should provide managerial and peer support to [workers] who are exposed to interpersonal stressors amid the pandemic.

“In addition to these training programs, workplace incivility scholars suggest that service organizations should give [frontline service employees] a short break after difficult customer encounters…since it would enable them to recover from stress and recharge their resources.”


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