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6 ways employers can break the ‘money taboo’ at work

Money is the ultimate dirty subject. Here’s why breaking the taboo at work makes perfect cents.

By Tom Ritchie

Most of us wouldn’t talk about things like personal debt with our bosses — but financial stress has a huge effect on mental health and productivity.

Even worse is that businesses often contribute to this stress with unfair expenses systems, a lack of pay transparency and unsupportive policies. 

So how do we break the ‘money taboo’?

In last week’s Sifted Talks, we asked this and more to our panel of personal finance, HR and business spend experts, including: Anne-Marie Headley, CEO and founder of HR and people solutions business Workforce Buddy; Clare Seal, author and campaigner with The Financial Wellbeing Forum; and Sara Brooks, VP of sales at company card provider Pleo. 

Photo credit: Dr Andrew Garthwaite
Photo credit: Dr Andrew Garthwaite

1. Financial wellbeing improves employee productivity

It’s in everyone’s best interest to reduce employee financial stress. Headley says employees that worry about money are far less productive, negatively affecting the business’s output and bottom line. 

She cites recent research that finds over a quarter of UK workers are currently experiencing financial stress. This affects not only productivity and mental health, but these workers are also three times more likely to look for jobs elsewhere, increasing valuable talent turnover and recruitment and training costs.  

“We know that being worried about money makes mental health worse… People who are experiencing financial stress on the job often are the ones making more mistakes… They’re five times more likely to not complete their daily tasks, they’re four times more likely to have poor relationships with their colleagues… There’s a productivity cost.” — Anne-Marie Headley, Workforce Buddy

2. Your expenses system might be stressing out your employees

Expenses are a necessary evil, but the most commonplace expenses systems see employees paying out of pocket — who then have to wait to be reimbursed. This means employees end up being a form of microloan for their employer. 

Seal shared that she wound up accruing family debt thanks to business expenses; her husband had to wait months to be reimbursed for expensive work travel costs which put stress on their personal budgeting. And it’s not just Seal — a Pleo and YouGov survey found that as many as 57% of young workers in the UK have experienced stress due to unpaid expenses.

“When we’ve got quite a lot of people, individuals and households who are living month to month and don’t have a safety net, it causes real stress. It’s not necessarily the case for many people that they could say to their boss ‘I can’t afford to pay for this’… It puts people in a really uncomfortable position.” — Clare Seal, The Financial Wellbeing Forum 

3. Give all employees access to company funds

It’s often only top level management who are trusted to directly access company funds via company credit cards, but it’s usually junior workers who are responsible for running errands and picking up tabs. This means the financial burden typically falls on the lowest-paid employees.

Services such as Pleo allow everyone access to a company card: businesses can skip the expenses system, giving junior employees limited but real-time access to company funds. 

“Employees, no matter if you’re an intern, or if you’re the CRO, should be able to spend company money, and not suffer the financial losses.” — Sara Brooks, Pleo 

4. Education is the first step in breaking down ‘money’ taboos

Headley says financial education should start at a young age. While she says her parents were key to her financial education, she recognises many people don’t have that luxury, and financial literacy education in schools is lacking. This is where employers can fill in the gap.

While it’s not the responsibility of an employer to make their employees financially responsible, she says, it’s in a business’s best interest to support their staff. Helping employees make better financial decisions, implementing useful tools and policies and educating them on pensions and benefits can create a financially savvy workforce. 

“As workers we spend more than 50% of our time in the workplace, that becomes a prime opportunity to transfer some of that learning. Especially when you make the connections with financial wellbeing, productivity and a desire for happier, healthier employees.” — Anne-Marie Headley, Workplace Buddy 

5. Employers need to start the conversation

Financial education starts with open communication — and that should come from the top. Seal says employees don’t want to discuss personal finances in the workplace because it may put them at a disadvantage when it comes to renegotiating salary.

Seal suggests employers take the first step in breaking down the ‘money’ taboo by organising sessions where senior colleagues talk openly about mistakes they’ve made with money — such as not contributing early enough to pensions — before giving employees the space to come forward in their own time. 

“What we see quite often with financial wellbeing in the workplace is it’s an engagement issue. Where people have a taboo shame barrier between our personal finance and our work finances… It’s about bridging that engagement gap because until you open the floodgates, there’s such a barrier.” — Clare Seal, The Financial Wellbeing Forum 

6. Transparent salaries can improve productivity

You can’t talk about employee financial wellbeing without bringing up salary transparency. Many organisations still put a gag order on employees openly speaking about pay — Seal says this was even written into her employment contract — but implementing a transparent wage structure creates a fairer and more productive workplace. 

Brooks says she’s implemented a transparent pay structure in her team where employees are all paid at the exact same starting levels as their peers, and raises are based on performance.

While this means she often has to say no to ideal candidates who ask for more than their potential colleagues, she said, it’s increased productivity and parity between men and women’s salaries — as male workers ask for more in traditional salary negotiations. It also means workers are more likely to be rewarded for their output over time.  

“Salaries and transparency around salaries is always difficult… At Pleo we really believe in transparency, this is what we build, this is what we sell… I’m striving as much as possible to have a model where employees can earn more or less based on their performance, but make that really clear.” — Sara Brooks, Pleo 

Want to learn more about employee financial well being? Watch the full Sifted Talk here: