There is no shadow of a doubt we are in the middle of an economic and health crisis - the second in two years. People, organisations and public services are under immense pressure from all angles. For many, the rising cost-of-living is already unsustainable and the outlook continues to look bleak.

We don’t need reminding of the barrage of price increases which are currently upon us; energy, fuel, food, housing, inflation, to name just a few. These will all be affecting us all in one way or another.

A recent survey from the Royal College of Physicians1 found that more than half of respondents felt rising costs had negatively affected their health.

Poor mental health - impact on the workforce

With so many people not being able to afford the essentials within their weekly food shop, or to heat their homes, we need to be aware of the direct health impact that increased hunger and feeling cold can have. On top of this there there’s the worry of other expenses that must be cut back on. The lack of sleep over all of this also impacts mental wellness.

"All of this, in turn, could affect their concentration and productivity within the workplace – key risks to your organisation’s success"

Worries about finances can lead to low mood, anxiety, stress and feeling out of control. The likelihood of people falling into debt, or getting deeper into debt, is real and it’s a common fact that debt and mental health are intrinsically linked. Poor mental health affects our ability to solve financial problems, and further financial problems can lead to worsening mental health. It starts to feel like a vicious cycle.

Have you considered the cost implications of these issues on the impact of your workforce? How much of an impact is this having on your presenteeism or sickness levels, for example?

We explore some of the practical steps to help support and manage your employees’ mental health during the cost-of-living crisis and beyond. 

Financial support for employees

As discussed, we know how closely financial wellbeing and mental health are linked. So here are some suggestions from a financial perspective to help alleviate the financial worries for employees.  

You could consider reviewing your organisation’s pay strategy to see if a cost-of-living bonus or targeted financial support for employees is affordable, thereby reducing shorter term stress and anxiety. Considerations need to be given to ensure this doesn’t affect those claiming certain benefits, such as tax credits. With data analysis of the workforce, you should be able to identify those it may impact. Be aware though that such one-off payments often have a short-term effect and may not really help your employees over anything but the short term.

Understand your workforce

Using data analytics will identify and confirm the issues being faced by employees, the scale of them and impact on the organisation. Knowing what makes your workforce (and your organisation) unique will provide insights, so that you can make more informed decisions about how to support your employees, including those most at risk. We call this your ‘Employer DNA.’

Look beyond pay and see what you have already; people might not know about certain benefits or policies or how these can support them. Reviewing your employee benefits package and wider HR policies (perhaps around paid time off for care responsibilities, becoming a parent, community participation through volunteering, etc) will help ensure you are offering the right package to support employees in times of need, either from an intervention or financial perspective. Offer a wide range of benefits which offer choice and flexibility, whilst guaranteeing that they are suitable for all at different life stages.

Look to see if these can be improved or refocussed in order to provide an inclusive and supportive culture.

Engage employees about their benefits

Ensuring that you have good engagement levels with your benefits offering helps maximise your return on investment with any company paid benefits. If your engagement levels are low, you need to ask yourself if the benefits are easily accessible, both in and outside the workplace. Do they best suit the demographical needs and are they affordable in this current crisis?

For example, 4me, our digital employee benefits platform, is designed to support the financial, mental and physical wellbeing of employees, so organisations can offer the right benefits to help people in times of need.

Communication is key to ensuring that your benefits are not your best kept secret, so make sure the media channels you use are best suited to your workforce. Keep communications current, topical and to the point. And remember… no one likes death by email.

Flexibility to suit employees' needs

Offer flexibility when it comes to benefits choices. For example, provide the option of reducing cover or of opting out of certain benefits for a while and, in return, offering a cash pot to select other, more suitable, benefits for the individual or even a return in monthly salary. This could then free up a pot of money that could help go towards the family essentials such as food or heating. 

Do you offer, or should you consider, financial wellbeing benefits such as early earned wage access? Or give employees access to a loan facility via a salary sacrifice arrangement, allowing employees to access loans at more preferential rates than the high street? You don’t need an actual benefit provider to help with financial support for your employees as you can even fulfil these yourselves if you are in a position to. 

You could consider salary advances, on agreeable repayment terms with the individual, to reduce the need for them to access high interest loans from loan sharks in the event they are short of money for the month. And ensure you offer a discounts portal to help employees obtain maximum savings on their daily essentials. 

Spend more time in the office

Another consideration could be encouraging employees to work more in the office (or other type of workplace) which can help save on household energy costs. Conversely, however, working from home could also save on commuting costs. So, implementing a car sharing scheme can help employees save money on fuel costs when commuting to and from work and help from a sustainability perspective too. 

Something as simple as a suggestion of offering breakfast in the office, such as cereal and toast, can encourage employees back to the office. But this also helps with a small saving from the employees’ shopping expenses too. Everything helps! 

Creating a supportive environment

Encourage your employees to discuss their concerns and specific worries with their line managers. Train your line managers in their ability to recognise if an employee is not themselves, in having more difficult conversations around mental health, or even understanding someone’s struggles around the cost-of-living crisis. Educate them with the tools and signposting support available for the cost-of-living crisis too. 

"Encouraging employees to proactively manage their mental health goes a long way, by helping to build resilience with mindfulness and healthy mindful behaviours."

There’s a wide range of apps available through digital devices to help with breathing exercises, being present in the moment and the practice of gratitude and affirmations. Many of these are free.

It may be that the corporate benefits you currently offer have things like these built in, as part of the overall offering. It is always worth understanding what embedded benefits and services you have available before looking for a standalone solution, thus removing the duplication of such benefits and possibly saving the additional cost. 

Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) are often provided in addition to these corporate benefits. They provide employee access to a wide range of professionals to help with financial advice or for psychological support and often include a virtual GP service. This gives employees access to on-demand appointments to see a doctor or nurse for medical advice and support around their mental health or health issues. They help reduce the disruption to the working day and allow employees to be seen in quicker turnaround times.  

Having an established network of mental health first aiders within the organisation who can help spot the signs and symptoms of poor mental health is also a great tool for managing employee mental health. 

"Should all else fail and employees do find themselves unable to work due to mental health issues, ensure you have a robust absence management process."

This includes a multi-faceted support process from a rehabilitation provider and occupational health service, to help the organisation support and manage employees dealing with poor mental health. This will help you to meet your duty of care and ensure that the employee is getting the correct support and advice, with supportive return to work plans and reasonable adjustments which are fit for both the organisation and the employee.

Good communication – a vital ingredient

Ensuring that you communicate with your employees and make them feel valued will go a long way towards maintaining a healthy culture and help support their overall wellbeing. This is a two-way process. Your organisation also needs to listen to the feedback and views of employees and take action, via the appropriate channels. Employees need to feel that their voice is heard and that they are working with management, not for them. 

Communication is the key to building trust within the organisation, so establishing this early on is imperative. Empowering your employees to be heard builds an environment which better allows them to feel understood and recognised. Letting them know they are not alone, and that the organisation has a wide range of services, support and advice available will benefit you in the longer term. You will stand out as an employer of choice and this will have a positive impact on attracting and retaining top talent.  

If you would like to discuss any of this topic in more detail, please contact your usual Barnett Waddingham consultant. You can also get in touch with the authors, Laura Matthews or Julia Turney

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1 Royal College of Physicians press release

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