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Shame stops employees talking about money at work 

A hard-to-shift stigma is stopping UK employees from seeking more support with money in the workplace, despite employers ramping their financial wellbeing efforts. The cost-of-living crisis is a rallying call across society to dismantle this stigma – and employers have a crucial role to play. 

According to our State of Financial Wellbeing research, nine in 10 (93%) organisations now have a financial wellbeing policy – up from the 51% reported by the CIPD in March 2021.

Yet 68% of employees said they would not tell their employer about their money worries.

So powerful is this stigma – primarily driven by feelings of shame and embarrassment – that debt charity Christians Against Poverty told us it’s not uncommon for people to wait three years or more before they seek help. 

Improving employees' financial wellbeing:

More action needed to address workers' money worries

How to create a financial wellbeing strategy

How to make financial wellbeing work for everyone

Much more support – so why the stigma? 

Financial wellbeing strategies are no doubt getting more mature, which is great news for UK employees; employers are increasingly likely to focus on support that empowers individuals to raise their financial wellbeing in the long term.

But levels of support do not always correlate with the number of conversations: the stigma is embedded and societally driven, which makes it very sticky. Employees can use many forms of support without ever having to talk about money. 

If people are improving their financial wellbeing, that’s something to be celebrated. But stigma affects people in a myriad of ways: bottling things up raises cortisol, can be incredibly isolating and can affect interpersonal relationships.

There’s a link between financial wellbeing and mental wellbeing and while this is a complex relationship, there’s no doubt the stigma contributes – shame and embarrassment are destructive to self-identify and therefore long-term mental wellbeing. 

Tackle the isolating effects of stigma with safe spaces 

Stigmas are naturally isolating, but employers can resist this by creating safe spaces.

There’s precedent here: many organisations have trained, for example, mental health champions to act as positive and trusted beacons to encourage discussion.

This is especially powerful when these people are willing to share their own story publicly. Sharing mental health stories in the workplace has helped give people a shared lexicon for how to tell their own story. 

It’s also true that stigma blinds and deafens: if you’re feeling shame or embarrassment, you see your choices as limited and increasingly you think that no one can help.

Close to all (91%) of employers told us they provide an environment that’s supportive of financial health, but only 52% of employees agree.

Often support is available, but people just can’t see beyond their worry. Engagement and reinforcement are necessary to embed financial wellbeing as part of the fabric of organisational life so that people habituate, which increases the chances of a conversation happening.  

Never waste opportunities to talk about money and normalise the conversation 

It’s important to note there are obvious times to try and start a conversation about money in the workplace. These are often externally driven, such as the ongoing cost-of-living crisis, furlough or systemic changes like the introduction of auto-enrolment. 

But it can also be linked to changes introduced by the employer, such as new financial wellbeing platforms, or changes experienced by employees, such as babies, first mortgages or promotions.

We are financial animals by necessity which means money is an everyday part of life. Once you start looking, you won’t run out of opportunities to try and make talking about money that little bit easier for everyone. 

And on the flipside, those most likely to have those conversations – line managers, for example – should be trained to spot opportunities for discussion and be able to respond appropriately so that all these opportunities to talk about money can be utilised effectively.

Line managers can’t ‘solve’ money problems, but they can signpost and support. This clear distinction is not always obvious to people, but it instantly raises confidence when it comes to talking about money.  

Jamie Lawrence is insights director at Wagestream