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Festive Financial Stress

The run-up to Christmas costs UK families at least an extra £800 on average, highlighting why this time of year can for some be a season of intense financial anxiety rather one of joy and merriment. But there is much employers can do to alleviate and manage financial worry from a health and wellbeing perspective, including offering access to an Employee Assistance Programme.

Employee health and wellbeing – ho, ho, help: Christmas can be a time of financial anxiety for many

British families last year spent an average of £821.25 on gifts, food, drink and decorations in the run-up to Christmas, and one in eight of us may even get into four figures this year. Once you add in the cost of Christmas parties and even the office Secret Santa, perhaps it is no wonder the festive period can be a season of financial stress and anxiety for many rather than one of goodwill, with the potential to be seriously damaging to health and wellbeing.

UK wage growth may, finally, be creeping up – with wages now rising at their fastest rate for a decade – but for many, and for many employers, financial stress and anxiety remains a real issue, especially at this time of year. The fact that a quarter of us expect to go over budget in the run-up to Christmas clearly does not help, either.

Money worries and performance

Research in recent months has suggested that financial worries and pensions are what most concern employees (ahead even of health) and that chief executives are becoming increasingly aware of the connections between financial anxieties and employee behaviour and performance.

There have been calls for employers to step up workplace support, especially around retirement planning and saving, while concerns have also been raised about the fact almost half of employers do not appear to have a financial wellbeing strategy in place for their employees.

What, therefore, can employers do to help, especially from a health and wellbeing and occupational health perspective?

The first thing to recognise is that offering support and help around financial wellbeing may lead to uncomfortable conversations around the line of “well, why then don’t you simply pay me more?”.

This is something that needs to be planned for, and a good response is to be straight up that explain there is only a limited pot of money to go around, especially in the current uncertain economic climate. But, accepting that, how can you, as an employer, help your employees to make what money they do have work harder and go further?

Multi-generational issue

Second, it is important to recognise that financial stress and anxiety can have a real knock-on effect on the workplace, on productivity, performance, absence, sleep patterns and health and wellbeing generally.

Third, it can be a multi-generational issue. Younger workers may have concerns around managing student and other debt. Middle-aged workers may feel part of the so-called “sandwich generation” pulled in both directions with supporting a family and elderly dependents. Older workers may feel anxious about whether they will have enough money to retire on or whether, under pensions’ freedom, they risk making bad financial decisions as they approach retirement.

But finally, fourth, it is about recognising there is much employers can do here to help. Mid-life financial “MOTs”; pensions, debt or savings talks or workshops; booklets; online or physical tools and calculators can all help in terms of resources and support to help employees better manage and understand their day-to-day finances.

From the health and wellbeing perspective, too, there is much employers can do to support employees in terms of the stress and anxiety they may be feeling as a result.

Value of EAPs

Offering access to an employee assistance programme (EAP) can be valuable in this context. Although an EAP is not a substitute for specialist mental health or occupational health support, especially when dealing with severe or complex cases, it can provide a “safe”, confidential space where employees can talk about their stresses and anxieties, including money worries.

The mere fact of offering access to an EAP can also send out a positive signal that, as an employer, you take mental health and wellbeing seriously and want your employees to know there are tools and resources out there that they can turn to for support and guidance.

As Dr Lucy Wright, Chief Medical Officer at Optima Health, explains, an EAP can also help managers in this context.

“The role of an EAP in offering access to confidential counselling and support is well-known. What is often less well understood is that EAPs can often offer valuable advice to management teams around best practice,” she says.

“This can include how to identify warning signs of stress and anxiety in an employee and how it can affect them and the wider team or workplace. An EAP can help with what to say and not to say, how to open and have what managers can sometimes find are difficult conversations.

“An EAP will often be able to signpost managers to the best advice and help (which may be occupational health) but also, crucially, when to recognise it is time to call in more specialist support. An EAP is not a panacea, but it can be a valuable tool in your armoury for managing stress and anxiety, especially at this expensive time of year,” she adds.