Not Even the Joneses Can Keep up With the Joneses Right Now, and That’s a Good Thing for Financial Wellbeing. Here’s Why…

Rising stacks of coins with the word costs

There is a surprising silver lining around the current cost of living crisis, causing all our bills and inflation rates to soar, from graduates to CEOs: it’s a great time to talk to all your employees about the vital importance of looking after their financial health, an oft-neglected part of the wellbeing mix.

“You will get more employees engaged right now,” says money coach Martha Lawton. “Previously there were elements of shame going into a workshop about managing finances, especially at work where nobody wants to be thought of as someone who can’t manage their money. But everyone now has cost of living issues; the Joneses aren’t even able to keep up with the Joneses.”

Progressive employers are grabbing the opportunity

Some progressive employers have latched onto this opportunity already. Lucy Cook, financial wellbeing champion at Accenture UK recently posted on LinkedIn that she was looking for a “financial wellbeing expert to lead a virtual ‘Debt 101’ session for apprentices and grads’”. “We’d really like the speaker to capture the impact of debt on mental health,” she says.

Indeed, the impact of worries about money on mental health is huge. It’s linked to all sorts of ill-effects that directly affect an individual’s ability to work, from sleeplessness to physical symptoms of stress to poor colleague relationships.

Majority of UK population feels stressed about money

While there’s been a slight increase in the nation’s general financial health score since the start of the pandemic, over half of the UK population (52%) now admit to feeling “regularly or occasionally stressed or overwhelmed” due to their financial situation. This is according to Schroders Personal Wealth (SPW)’s latest report on ‘Money and Mind’ which analyses the UK’s financial health and wellbeing.

Leigh Dunkley, financial wellbeing leader at SPW says there’s been a “massive” increase in the number of companies contacting her for advice on how to talk to their staff about finances, with her company implementing programmes for the likes of Reed, Nova Solutions and Cadence. But the biggest thing holding companies back from starting the conversation is stigma.

Financial wellbeing is the last taboo of wellbeing

“It’s been great to see employers focus on mental health in the pandemic,” says Dunkley. “That was the first strand of wellbeing. Financial wellbeing is the last taboo. It’s the pillar of wellbeing seen as the most personal and the most complex. Employers are questioning whether or not they should even be crossing that line and ‘interfering’ with a person’s finances. They definitely should.”

There’s a cyclical relationship between our finances, how we feel about money and how we feel about ourselves, says Lawton: “Whatever emotional baggage you have will play out in your relationship with money.”

Some employees who feel unworthy, for example, will underspend and deny themselves. For some, no amount of savings is enough to alleviate anxiety. For others, low self-worth can drive overspending because they don’t trust themselves to have money, explains Lawton.

Financial wellbeing strategies can’t exist in isolation

The fact that our financial wellbeing is so complex and integral to our general sense of wellbeing means that any strategy needs to be integrated into an overarching approach, ideally in collaboration with learning & development, DEI, reward and internal communications.

A factor not helping the stigma issue is the terrible image of the financial industry, which still exists in many employees’ minds. “It goes back to the ‘big bad bankers’ of 2008 in their grey suits sipping champagne,” says Dunkley. “That’s one reason SPW was created and given its own name and purpose; we want to change the perception of financial advice.”

The most common mistake she sees when employers try to start the financial wellbeing conversation is that they “jump” straight to products, talking about implementing pension protection, for instance.

Employee financial literacy must be a priority before product

“But there’s no point having all these fantastic product benefits if employees don’t understand them!” she says. “The education piece is absolutely critical first, as is creating that safe space where employees can ask questions and speak openly about their personal circumstances.”

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Anglian Water’s head of reward, Sally Purbrick, agrees and says that financial wellbeing has been a core focus of the company’s wellbeing strategy as they realised there was a knowledge gap here.

“We have some really good benefits in our flexible benefits portal, such as the ability to buy and sell annual leave, or take out a hardship loan or set up a pension or saving scheme but not many people know how to access these benefits, use them best or what information they might need to share.”

Some employers are plugging the knowledge gap

To plug this knowledge gap, Anglian ran a week of events in February to coincide with the time employees pick their benefits from the portal. During the same week, there were also sessions relating to managing stress and yoga.

While she concedes it can be challenging talking to a large, diverse workforce about money, she says employers can’t avoid it because financial wellbeing has such a profound impact on stress levels:

“It affects everybody. Yes, it’s very personal but we don’t ask people to share stories. We make it a comfortable place they can listen and learn. Ultimately, though, as with all wellbeing, they have to control their finances themselves and it goes back to personal responsibility. We can just help them learn what they can do.”

Advice must be relatable and representative 

It’s crucial that the advice is relatable and delivered by someone relatable. As Dunkley admits, the financial industry is doing “poorly” on the representation front. It’s still tragically common for a financial wellbeing strategy to be synonymous with plonking a grey haired man in a suit in front of employees to talk to them about pensions.

“Representation is the elephant in the room. Are we as an industry making strides? Yes. They are minimal. It’s moving at a ridiculously slow rate.” She implores employers to challenge their existing financial providers arguing:

“The power is in your hands. Ask your provider honest questions. As them how they are going to appeal to your audience and workforce in a language they understand.”

It’s your younger workforce that is most stressed about money

Younger generations are most stressed about finances, as SPW’s report shows, with 70% of 18-34 year olds confessing they regularly/occasionally experience stress over their financial situation, compared to the average of 52% across all age groups.

Employers aren’t doing enough to help them or talk to them in a relatable way, says Olamide Majekodunmi, which is why she set up financial literacy platform All Things Money in lockdown, while at university.

Due to the growth it’s experienced, the site is now her fulltime job and she is increasingly being asked to come into companies to talk to young audiences about financial health.

“Lots of my friends are in the workforce, working in finance or for law firms and they aren’t being taught enough in their place of work,” she says.

“It’s tough when you’re a grad and you’re seeing payslips and you don’t know what they mean. People can be embarrassed to ask. Employers need to create safe spaces to ask. Employers have a responsibility to teach them how to build a good relationship with money and how to feel good about money.”

About the author

Suzy Bashford is a freelance journalist, podcaster and workshop facilitator.

She is passionate about destigmatising mental health by creating a more honest, helpful narrative around it, and related topics like emotional intelligence, stress management and empathy. She also believes in the power of creativity and nature to improve our wellbeing, which she covers regularly in articles for the likes of Psychologies magazine and her own podcast, Big Juicy Creative.

When she’s not writing or podcasting, you’ll probably find her dipping in a cold loch, hiking with her dog or biking the mountain trails in the awesome Cairngorms National Park, where she lives.

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