* To incorporate mental wellbeing into rewards programme
* To incentivise behaviours like mindfulness, sleep
* If successful, could be rolled out globally
JOHANNESBURG, Oct 2 (Reuters) - Discovery is targeting 500,000 insurance clients in South Africa to take regular surveys on their mental health in an extension of a programme which rewards "good" behaviours.
The South African insurer's model already offers clients insurance discounts and everything from free coffee to cheap flights for buying healthy food, exercising and driving safely.
Dinesh Govender, CEO of Vitality, the insurer's behaviour change programme, said the aim, as with its physical fitness scheme, was both to make its clients healthier and over time bring down the cost of claims.
"It hits in the same way," Govender told Reuters, adding that the insurer hoped that by focusing on mental health issues it would also reduce some physical illnesses.
The Vitality model has been adopted by insurers including Discovery's joint venture partner Ping An in China and Manulife's John Hancock in the United States, which now only writes insurance using it.
Discovery's data shows the model succeeds in attracting and retaining healthy, more desirable clients, while those who pursue less healthy lifestyles tend to drop off.
Jean-Francois Gasc, managing director in Accenture's insurance practice, said the retention of desirable clients is the main advantage of such models for providers.
But Simon Ranger, UK Head of Insurance at KPMG, warned that some people could end up being deemed too risky to cover by insurers if the trend goes unchecked by regulators.
British charity Mind has warned that some people with a history of mental illness are already being charged more for insurance or refused cover altogether.
The number of people reporting and seeking treatment for mental illness is on the rise, with a report by the American Psychological Association showing a 71% rise in rates of serious psychological distress among young adults between 2008 and 2017.
Discovery says its mental health benefits and policies will not change as a part of its initiative, which offers users points for taking regular surveys assessing their mental health.
These, along with any the client earns for physical or financial health, will be used to calculate premium discounts.
Discovery said the surveys will also be used to generate personalised targets for things like mindfulness and sleep, with users able to earn rewards for progress towards them.
Those identified as at risk of mental illness will be told to call, or get a call from, a hotline run by the South African Depression and Anxiety Group and receive advice and support including on how to seek treatment where appropriate.
Engagement with the hotline will not be linked to points.
Mental wellbeing will for now only be incorporated by Vitality in South Africa and Britain, although Govender said it could be rolled out and offered to its partner insurers. ($1 = 15.2682 rand) (Reporting by Emma Rumney; Editing by Alexander Smith)