Everyone in the UK has been affected to a greater or lesser extent by rising energy, fuel, and housing costs. Key workers, in particular, are likely to be impacted by increasing living costs, with both their physical and mental wellbeing at risk.
Employers of key workers are in a unique position to support their employees and help mitigate some of the challenges that come with this crisis, in particular helping to safeguard their mental health as they face greater financial stress.
Why is this such a big issue for key workers?
Throughout the pandemic, key workers continued working. They have not only had to deal with the fear of being exposed to the virus, but they have also had to cope with the pressure of growing workloads. Nearly half of critical workers reported higher levels of stress and anxiety during this period.
Additionally, research by the Living Wage Foundation shows that 16% of critical workers earned below the national living wage in April 2020, meaning they were not earning enough to cover their living costs. With the cost of living rising, this shortfall has worsened, and the pressure on workers is increasing.
While many people in Britain are addressing financial insecurity by relocating to cheaper parts of the country, or working from home to cut down on transport and childcare costs, critical workers whose roles are tied to a specific location don’t have this option and are facing potential financial burnout.
What are the mental health impacts of financial distress?
Money affects every aspect of our lives, and the impacts of financial distress can be devastating. Dr Kerry Irving, a senior psychologist here at Kooth, advises that the effects of money worries on mental health can be severe. Some of the impacts may be:
- Feelings of stress, anxiety, and fear
- Struggles to sleep or concentrate
- Guilt and shame
In severe cases, financial worries “can cause people to feel helpless and as though there is no way out”. People in debt are three times as likely to consider suicide as those without a debt problem.
Relationship and social strains
Money worries also affect our relationships with other people. For romantic partners, money can cause arguments, or even lead to the breakdown or end of a relationship, especially if partners have different approaches to managing their finances.
And it’s not just relationships at home that are affected by money. Worrying about finances can mean that people feel less able or inclined to reach out to friends or socialise, which can lead to feelings of loneliness and isolation.
All these factors are likely to cause people worrying about their finances to feel overwhelmed, which leaves them unable to tackle the problem. In addition, people feeling anxious and depressed about their finances are likely to have low self-esteem and think more negatively.
Poor mental health makes it more challenging to implement practical solutions, such as sticking to a budget or taking steps like finding better-paid work.
Many people find it too painful to think about their finances, appearing to outsiders as though they are “putting their head in the sand” or even appearing to be coping when, in reality, they aren’t. But, unfortunately, most financial issues will only worsen over time if left unaddressed.
What should employers be doing to help?
The single most important thing that employers of key workers can do to help their employees during the cost-of-living crisis is to pay the real living wage. The real living wage has been independently calculated based on what the average person needs to pay their bills and feed their families. So, employers must assess their budgets to make paying this a priority - otherwise, employees will continue to live on a deficit.
Employers can also assist by evaluating the employee benefits that they offer. Some benefits that can help those in financial difficulty are:
- Allowing flexible and remote working where possible; these may enable employees to save time and money on transport and childcare
- Retirement savings plans and contributing to workplace pensions
- Life insurance policies
- Health insurance
- Gym memberships
- Allowing mental health days
- Mental health and wellbeing support
- Providing debt support - our friends at Step Change offer valuable resources on how employers can support employees
- Providing mental health support for both the employee and their family
The best way to decide which benefits would add the most value for your employees is to ask them!
The value of open dialogue
When you ask employees which benefits they would find helpful, it shows that you genuinely care about their wellbeing. Conversely, employers offering benefits without consultation can create feelings of disconnect and make staff feel unvalued, especially when those benefits aren’t ones that employees find useful. These feelings can contribute to burnout, exacerbating mental health issues further.
Employee surveys, interviews, focus groups, and inductions are great places to start a dialogue around which benefits your employees need.
For employees experiencing financial hardship and debt, it can also be helpful to make them aware of the specialist organisations that can provide information and support. Citizens Advice, Money Helper, and Step Change are good places to start with money management, debt, and benefits. Mind also has an excellent guide to organising your finances, specifically tailored to those with mental health difficulties.
Actively implementing measures like those mentioned above is an excellent way to show your employees that their wellbeing is a priority to you, making it more likely that they will ask for help when they are experiencing financial difficulty.
A big part of supporting the workforce through the cost of living crisis will involve talking to your employees about money, and unfortunately, there can be a lot of stigma attached to this. Next week we will be looking at how you can spot the signs that someone could be overwhelmed, and how you can bring up a conversation around money.