Financial wellbeing has been a hot topic in recent years, but what does the term actually mean? And how much difference do most financial wellbeing programmes actually make to employees’ lives?
It’s widely appreciated that financial stress can affect people’s sleep, mental health, self-esteem, physical health, among a range of potential problems.
Indeed, half of UK adults who were behind on energy bills in late 2022 also reported high levels of anxiety, found the Office for National Statistics. They were also more likely to experience moderate-to-severe depressive symptoms.
So what are financial wellbeing programmes doing right – and what needs to change?
To explore these issues, Standard Life recently spoke to Blake Allison, CEO and founder at LifeCents, a US-based financial wellbeing consultancy.
Here are five takeaways from our discussion.
Make your support relatable
Financial wellbeing has been an established concept for a lot longer in the US than the UK. Yet many US employers also struggle to substantially improve their employees’ financial health. One of the problems might lie in the language we use – because how many employees actually use the term “financial wellbeing”?
Instead, they’re much more likely to say, “I can't pay my bills,” or, “I have too much debt. In other words, they will identify with the components of financial wellbeing, but not the term.
It’s therefore vital for employers to pitch the support they provide in ways that are meaningful to employees.
One way to do this is to frame the support around the key moments that might matter to people during their working life – whether this is trying to pay off student debt, getting on the housing ladder, organising family finances, or preparing for retirement.
Treat the individual – not the category to which they belong
Assessing a person’s individual needs is vital. Because you could have people that might appear similarly situated – in terms of age, gender, income and so on – but one of them might have lots of debt, while the other might have none.
Equally, there is sometimes a risk that, as employers and providers, we define good financial health from our perspective rather than what it means to the individual.
This can result in people being pushed to achieve levels of what we call financial health, which are not consistent with their goals and their values.
Instead, it’s vital to first understand who we're helping and what problems we're trying to solve, because many employers nowadays are working with diverse workforces that have very diverse needs.
And if we’re not asking questions of the individual, such as, what are your goals, what are your interests and needs, what keeps you up at night, and responding to these particular circumstances, then no financial wellbeing programme is likely to succeed.
Keep it simple
Many employers will understandably want to support their employees’ financial wellbeing. But will the investment you're willing to make be commensurate with the outcomes you expect?
From a company perspective, it's risky to try to make investments in every different solution across the board, because there will always be more problems and more solutions, and you’re never going to be able to provide everything for all people.
Instead, it’s often helpful to scale things back and ask: out of everything that we think a financial wellbeing programme can do and all of its possible benefits, what do we want our wellbeing programme to do, and what do we want the outcomes to be?
Because you can formulate very broad and seemingly disruptive ideas on how to improve people’s financial health, but it can be like boiling the ocean. Instead, having a very clear strategy, with very specific outcomes, is the best place to start – because no employer can do everything.
Empower your employees
Ultimately, employees are responsible for their own financial wellbeing. So the fundamental role of employers and providers is to empower them. Information is more readily available than ever before, yet it often makes little difference to people’s financial health. In fact, it can do more harm than good.
Why? Because many people don’t know where to start when trying to take control of their finances.
Helping your employees to become more self-aware of their financial circumstances and needs is therefore one of the best forms of support you can provide.
If we raise people’s financial awareness through asking the right questions, it’s likely that they’ll then seek out and use the resources they need.
Employers don’t have to act alone in helping their employees either, because there are a lot of other parties that can provide useful tools.
Indeed, as an employer there's only so much you can do to get people to the point that they can benefit from the services you provide. So if certain forms of support are not within your capacity, putting your employees in touch with other parties and forms of support can often be the best approach.
Of course, employees’ concerns and needs will continue to evolve, as will the ways in which employers can support them. So remaining open-minded and humble in the face of change is vital. And most important for all of us, is that we continue to listen to what employees tell us about their own lives and circumstance and what matters most to them.
For more information on financial wellbeing, take a look at our Financial Wellbeing hub.
Or watch our video, Financial wellness: What UK employers can learn from the US.