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Policyholders want more than just a wad of cash when they have a problem.

They want help – and that can come before financial redress.

General insurance has understood this for years. When someone crashes their car, getting back on the road is paramount.

The old style made policyholders find three repair shops, get estimates and let the insurer choose – usually the cheapest. Then, job done, the insurer would inspect the repairs before paying. All very time consuming and all too often destined to turn a drama into a crisis.

Now, the car crashes and goes to the insurer’s approved bodyshop. It gets sorted. The customer gets their vehicle back. The policyholder gets speed. The insurer saves money. And there is less chance of fraud or other problems.

Tony Halsall is applying the same thinking to income protection. Along with his wife Katya, he first “emerged” at an Protection Review conference earlier this year with their Income Protection Services. It’s a simple idea. You take someone receiving income protection and help them to return to meaningful employment. He calls it vocational rehabilitation – and while this is a recognised part of post-claim work in many countries, it is barely recognised in the UK where the culture remains that of “we pay out what the policy promised and what you do after that is your own affair.” That might suit some claimants – they can sit back with the financial security of their insurance claim and watch daytime television while stuffing themselves with crisps and sausage rolls. But most don’t want that. Besides leading to obesity, the vast majority enjoy going out every day and being involved in a useful occupation.

The Halsalls help them achieve that return to work which pleases them and saves the insurer big money. “No one should be pressured to return to their employment when they are not ready but it’s a myth to think people enjoy being off work, even if they are financially secure,” he says.

This wife/husband combination has the advantage of a varied background. She has the traditional insurance background – working as a rehabilitation professional for AIG and Unum although her initial training was in her native Russia.

He’s not an insurance person. He left school at 16, became a ship’s navigator, got involved in US real estate, let holiday homes in the UK, and then more property management in Cleveland Ohio.

While the Halsalls are now targeting providers of protection cover, they already have experience of insurers. They’ve partnered with personal injury lawyers, mostly in the road traffic accident field. And they’ve had instructions for motor insurance firms such as Direct Line and LV=. Road traffic victims are often off work for anything from two years to the rest of their lives. But this view needs to be countered. “Someone who loses a leg in an accident is understandably devastated. The standard medical diagnosis says they can’t work. But they need to do something for their self-confidence and their self-confidence needs for them to work,” he says.

The first stage is to assess what they can do – not the traditional insurance route of what people can’t do. It’s looking at abilities rather than limitations so a return to some work – maybe not their old occupation – is the goal.

It’s about liaising with both sides to ensure any graduated return to work is suited to the employee’s health limitations at the time. It also helps that Halsall help is seen as “on my side”. It’s third party – not directly from the insurer or the employer. What usually happens is that a firm buys an IP plan to help employees over sickness periods.

When someone is off sick for more than a certain number of days, personnel or human resources talks to the employee but few in HR have any training (or often enthusiasm) for dealing with these absences. Some are so bad at this, that short term illness turns into long term sickness and a big insurance bill.

The Halsalls are discussing vocational rehabilitation as an add-on to group IP with a number of insurers – most of these introductions were thanks to their stall at the Protection Review conference. The hope is it becomes a differential to other, seemingly similar, policies and so helps advisers sell the most suitable policies. To do this, they have to convince insurers that focused rehabilitation works better in mitigating claims than whatever they currently do. They see concepts such as “wellness” and “outplacement” as box ticking exercises which fail to achieve a permanent return to useful work and the end of the claim. It can be dealing with less obvious injuries. Someone who is assaulted at work might only suffer bruises but there can also be psychological pain. Here, what’s often required is moral support, rather than cash – the person has to be welcomed back, not paid off.

Bringing in a third party as vocational rehabilitation can help with stress cases. These are often notoriously difficult to solve – you have to rebuild trust and confidence and not just pay someone to stay at home. Stress victims are hardly likely to trust the HR department of the organisation which has caused their condition. When this is allowed to drag on, you get self-doubt and mental health problems which are more expensive the longer they fester.

The essential is to take a positive view, rather than write people off like a badly crashed car. It’s not guaranteed to work – nothing is successful in all cases – but the need is to challenge irrationality and realise what is possible. And that’s often more than many think.

The Halsalls, who hire others in their field on a needs basis, prefer to be paid on a case by case basis because they never know what work each individual – and they are all different – will involve. But insurers often want to pay a set sum each year. Ultimately, insurers have to ask whether this is a trick they are missing or whether it will add to their costs, without a visible return either to shareholders or to the policyholder claiming.