Winter is coming – and HR can't ignore money stigma any longer

New research highlights an ‘impact gap’ between employer effort and outcome around financial wellbeing, perpetuated by a reluctance to talk about personal finances, explains Jamie Lawrence

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The energy and the cost of living crises have plunged millions of UK workers into total financial uncertainty. The knock-on effects to mental health and other measures of life satisfaction are profound, which affects the entire workplace experience. This includes productivity, employee engagement and reduced positive sentiment if employers are perceived as not supporting their workers through the biggest fall in living standards since the 1950s. 

Many employers are stepping up, which is great, but unfortunately our latest State of Financial Wellbeing research shows there's an 'impact gap' made up of a range of blockers that prevent employer effort from translating into positive employee outcomes. One of the biggest and stickiest blockers is stigma, which stops UK employees from sharing their concerns to create a two-way dialogue that will close the impact gap.

Money stigma has always been a problem. It has a negative impact on mental health. It means people bottle up rather than share and, where they would benefit from help, tend to leave it longer before seeking it out, which worsens outcomes. It’s bad for society, because it encourages black and white thinking on whether people are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ with money. 

Why it matters right now

But while money stigma has always been a problem, it matters now more than ever. Why? The worst of the cost of living crisis is likely yet to come, applying pressure on employees already squeezed by the crisis to date, along with two years of income shocks and financial fallout from the global pandemic.

Despite the increase in pressure, the stigma remains in full force. The report reveals that three-quarters (76 per cent) of employees suffering negative effects from the cost of living crisis, such as stress or worsening mental health, have not told their employer. 

With workers suffering right now, businesses cannot ignore the role of stigma in prolonging and exacerbating the impact gap and, at a time when impact is everything, it’s critical that employer investments in financial wellbeing help individuals as much as they possibly can.

Tackling the stigma: lessons from mental health

What has helped mitigate the mental health stigma that could be applied to the money stigma? As with all complex problems, it’s been attacking it from multiple angles that has worn it down over time and helped society – and the workplace – open up the conversation. Here are some of the success stories:

  • Mental health champions: trained individuals who evangelise the importance of mental health, signpost resources, provide a first point of contact and generally act as beacons for people to come to with any mental health needs. To end the money stigma, we need people trained and ready to evangelise in the same way.

  • Trained line managers: line managers can be scared of mental health because they’re not sure what to do. By training them to be signposters, they tend to feel much more confident in the role and will actively open mental health conversations. The same is true for money – it’s a signposting role, and we need line managers to lean forward.

  • Inclusive stories: progressive mental health stories in the media, especially from notable figures, have really encouraged people to accept their own stories and be more willing to share them. This is also true in organisations, especially if voices are diverse – and also if they come from senior leader.s

  • Non-judgemental language: using language like ‘nuts’ and ‘crazy’ is not helpful when it comes to ending mental stigma. The same is true of money when we say someone is ‘bad with money’ as if it’s a trait that can never be changed.

First steps for employers

If you’re looking for the easiest first step, then it’s this: talk about money. There are many opportunities to talk about money, when you really think about it. These can be macro-trends, such as the cost of living crisis, or it can be internal trends, such as promotions. It can also be life events, such as when people have a baby.

However you start a conversation, the important thing is that you do. As a society we must step up to solve the money stigma: as organisations we can be leading lights. With the right conditions, employers are one of the best-placed actors to improve the financial wellbeing of UK employees. We just need to tear down the obstacles so we get the impact we all deserve.

Jamie Lawrence is director of insights at Wagestream