Featured Profile: Maria Falas
The road less travelled
ANZ Wealth head of mental health and wellness, life insurance, Maria Falas fell in love with Robert Frost's iconic poem 'The Road Not Taken' in high school. And that, she says, has made all the difference. Jamie Williamson writes.

Migrating to Australia from Cyprus in 1975 after losing their home and being forced to start over, Maria Falas' parents instilled the value of education and hard work from an early age.

With neither parent having experienced higher schooling, Falas was determined to get a good education and upon graduating from high school she dove into a commerce degree at the University of Sydney.

The more we talk about it, the better the outcomes will be for everyone.
Taking heed from Robert Frost and his iconic poem 'The Road Not Taken', Falas chose to major in econometrics - the branch of economics specifically concerned with mathematical methods, particularly statistics.

"I really loved numbers but - oddly enough - when I graduated I just couldn't actually envision life as an econometrician," she laughs.

The following year she returned to university and, with her mother's influence, she chose to study law.

"My mum told me that when I was growing up I would defend myself and my siblings all the time if we ever got in trouble. If I saw something that just didn't seem right, I would always be the one to speak up," she says.

Falas credits the degree for giving her a completely different way of thinking about the world around her; no matter which role she's taken on, her legal expertise has proved a tremendous value-add.

On her first rotation as a graduate lawyer, Falas developed a soft spot for financial services, primarily insurance.

"I felt a real connection with the service because I could see it's something that really benefits the community and I feel that there is a noble purpose behind it," she explains.

While she maintains her legal training and practicing certificate to this day, Falas became bored with traditional legal work and applied for a compliance role with ING Australia in 2005. Despite not having the relevant background in insurance, Falas is eternally grateful that someone took a chance on her.

"I honestly don't know where I'd be otherwise. They knew when they hired me that I didn't have experience but because I could read legislation, they were willing to take a punt on me," she says.

After ING Australia was acquired by ANZ Wealth in 2009, Falas moved into reporting and governance and later became client solutions manager, group risk. After three years in the role, Falas felt she had outgrown it.

"My boss asked me if I wanted her job one day and I realised that I didn't. She was really good at identifying people's strengths and purpose, and she basically told me I needed to figure out what was next for me," Falas says.

So she went back to the two roads and, having seen the alarming trends emerging in mental health claims in her previous role, a new path was decided. Falas presented a case study to the ANZ Wealth management team to say a dedicated mental health role was needed across the business.

"It was about learning from the community and from our own claims book about what we could be doing to better support our customers and our partners. I was more than comfortable with the idea of somebody else doing the job, I was just happy to champion the cause," she says.

However, despite a recruitment process, Falas was appointed the first head of mental health and wellness, life insurance, in October 2017.

Since then ANZ Wealth has rolled out a number of initiatives aimed at bringing ease and comfort to the claims process for customers.

In October 2017 a complimentary, phone-based coaching service was made available to all customers lodging income protection claims relating to depression or anxiety via Remedy Healthcare.

Another program through Remedy aims to increase the health and wellbeing of customers that have gone through the underwriting process and received a loading as a result of a particular health or lifestyle factor.

In addition, IP claimants can also enjoy the support of a Caseworks registered nurse to guide them through the claim assessment process in the comfort of their own home.

With mental illness estimated to cost the Australian economy about $28.6 billion each year, as at June 2018 mental health-related claims account for about 23% of all income protection claims seen by ANZ Wealth.

While the number of mental health-related claims has grown rapidly in recent years - demonstrating greater social acceptance of mental health challenges - Falas is conscious that an insurer's experience with mental health is in no way indicative of the wider issue.

"Life insurance businesses only really see people when they're unwell, which is when we gain insight. We are providing a service for people when they're not well, but in this instance it makes more sense to provide a service when they are well, so we are turning our focus to prevention and bringing some self-awareness to mental health," she explains.

As financial advisers ultimately servicing a vast proportion of the insurers end clients, ANZ Wealth also recently partnered with Mindstar to roll out an online portal containing tools to assist advisers with their own mental health, as well as educate them on how they can help struggling clients.

When it comes to her own mental health and wellness, Falas is an avid runner and has practiced yoga for more than 20 years; as a busy working mother to three children under 10, it is the only self-care time that she gets.

Growing up with two brothers, she is also partial to the odd practical joke and often plays them on her kids; all in the name of wellness, of course.

"I read an article a few years back that said each day you should do something you did as a child, so each day I'll play a joke on the kids, dance to a song I used to love or make a meal we always ate as kids...We get so wrapped up in adult responsibilities - it's good for the soul to reconnect with ourselves and be carefree," she says.

Having, for all intents and purposes, created the path that she's currently travelling on, Falas is proud to be leading ANZ Wealth's mental health strategy and doesn't see herself returning to the fork in the road any time soon.

"I know that I am taking the path that is right for me and right for now because I am so passionate about encouraging conversation and increasing both the industry's and the community's understanding of mental health," she explains.

"Virtually everyone has been touched by mental illness at some point in their life and I truly believe the more we talk about it, the better the outcomes will be for everyone."

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