Mental health awareness: managing financial wellbeing

Mental health awareness dates are key for HR business leaders to shine a light on the importance of proactive self-care and removing the stigma surrounding mental health. It is important to focus on creating an open and safe working environment for everyone. 
In 2017, the CIPD, in partnership with Close Brothers, produced a research document highlighting the impacts of financial wellbeing and how poor financial health is intrinsically linked with poor mental health. The report says that, ‘… one in four workers report that money worries have affected their ability to do their job and one in ten say they have found it hard to concentrate/make decisions at work because of money worries.’
Speaking to the BBC, personal finance expert and broadcaster Martin Lewis, who founded the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute (MMHPI), said chasing people for debts only worsened their problems.
"I [have] long campaigned for breathing space for those in crisis debt – but for those having a short period of acute mental illness; suffering panic attacks, unable to open post, call the bank, or even think coherently - going to a debt counsellor in order to call a halt to things is just impossible”.
There is an obvious case for action, supporting employees with their financial wellbeing as part of a broader agenda for wellbeing in the workplace. This goes beyond the obvious ethical and moral obligation to employees; a healthy workforce is a more productive and engaged workforce.
We asked Keith Thorne, Advice and Advocacy Manager at StepChange Debt Charity, to outline some experiences and insights on the links between employees’ financial wellbeing and mental health, gleaned from the charity’s 25 years of experience in working with clients to become debt free.

What effect can being in debt have on your mental health, and vice versa?

Keith says: “Sometimes it can be hard to disentangle which came first, the problem or the debt. Both can end up reinforcing each other and 9% of the people who called us last year said that they had a mental health problem. Among our clients identified as having a vulnerability, mental health was the vulnerability for around 2 in 5. For clients with a mental health condition, 40% cited illness as the underlying reason for their problem debt, compared to 14% of our clients as a whole. 
“My team is responsible for working with our vulnerable clients, to ensure that we deliver our service in the way that is best for them – flexibility is important. However you look at it, mental health problems are bad for your finances – and debt worries are bad for your mental health. But there are many sources of help available, and employers have the potential to be one of them.”

Is debt-related stress different from other stress?

Keith explains: “Just as people rarely have only one type of debt, people often have more than one factor contributing to their mental wellbeing or otherwise. Debt is often one part of a more complex jigsaw, but our clients tell us over and over again how the act of getting a solution to their debt problems in place helps them feel supported and able to tackle life better. 
“Frequently, people who have been lying awake at night kept up by their worries about debt are able to get their first full night’s sleep in a long time after getting in touch and beginning their journey to becoming debt-free.”

Employers can do a lot to support their employees, but often don’t know where to start.

On the best ways to navigate this, Keith offers some important advice: “There are some obvious things like providing a pension scheme to help people build up financial resilience for retirement. Or providing season ticket loans to help spread the cost of annual travel passes that will be cheaper in the end than buying daily tickets. Employers can help to signpost people to services such as debt advice, where this is needed.”
If employers are sympathetic and flexible it could help someone get through the tough temporary financial and health period, therefore preventing them from borrowing and incurring more debt. But what if an employer is not set up to fully offer support in the way it’s needed? Is there any special financial support available for those that experience mental health problems?  In answer to this, Keith adds: “A lot of lenders, utility companies and other creditors now work hard to try to identify if their customers are vulnerable, for example with a physical or mental health problem and make extra efforts to treat them sympathetically, and positively where this is the case.
“It is worthwhile making sure that the organisations you owe money to are aware if you have a mental health condition. Employers can help their employees by making sure that they are aware that there help is available if a person’s mental health condition is affecting their ability to earn their usual income.”

Finally, what steps can you take if you feel that your debt is affecting your own mental health or that of a colleague?

Keith concludes: “In the workplace, a mental health policy that helps employees to understand when and how to intervene or seek further advice if they are concerned about a colleague, provides a valuable support framework.” 
While resolving debt problems may not be a magic solution to mental health problems, it is likely to help rather than hinder. So taking advice from a reputable debt advice provider – or encouraging a colleague to do so – may be a real help.”
Tania Garstang
Associate Director, Michael Page Human Resources
T: +44 113 388 9023 
M: +447825273013