Financial Stress and Its Impact on Employee Productivity

The stress you carry from home doesn’t come off with your coat when you settle in for the workday. Not knowing if you can afford to pick up your prescription after work or pay your cell phone bill can be a huge distraction.

In this piece, we’ll take a look at how many workers are suffering from financial stress, discuss how this impacts the workplace, and share a few tips for how to mitigate this problem.

What does financial stress look like?

Sometimes financial stress looks like an empty chair. If you can’t afford to be away from home for the day, you’ll find a way to stay there. While the data on financial stress comes from a few sources, they concur that absenteeism is tied to financial stress. Regular unplanned absences can hurt your personal growth and impact outcomes for your employer.

Employees who are having trouble focusing may have trouble meeting deadlines or leave their station to make frequent phone calls. While constantly having a cell phone in hand isn’t necessarily a sign of financial stress, it may be a signal that something is off if cell phone use isn’t part of their normal routine and responsibilities.

Financial stress may also look like fatigue, which can be measured through chronic tardiness or falling behind performance benchmarks. An employee who is working a second or third gig to make ends meet won’t have the same energy as their peers, and if you measure productivity by numbers, it may be easy to spot a downward trend.

Financial stress by numbers

Not all struggling employees are easy to identify on sight. The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) recently released a study on how employees’ financial issues affect their job performance, and the results showed a lot of room for improvement.

The SHRM study also turned up a few key observations from management: 76 percent of employers reported seeing an increase in stress among employees, and 60 percent observed workers’ inability to focus at work.

For employees, these numbers resonate. Willis Towers Watson’s 2017 / 2018 Global Benefits Attitudes Survey showed that half of employees – 51 percent – experienced a significant financial event in the last two years.

It may not surprise you that this survey also reported that 30 percent of employees experienced a significant medical expense during that time: healthcare is the source of great stress for many Americans, and it can be hard to find ways to cope with an unexpected medical emergency and the costs that come with it.

While about half of those surveyed reported being happy with their financial state, 48 percent “often worry” about their current financial state and 59 percent “often worry” about their future financial state.

If you walk into an office every morning where half the room is distracted by how they’ll pay for their groceries that week, the stress level is palpable. Even if you don’t have financial worries, if your coworkers are struggling, it will impact your team’s performance.

What can you do to manage your financial stress?

There are many financial planning strategies you might use to tackle financial challenges, but there are two main strategies we have to offer for tackling stress:

1. Pay attention to your mindset

Be positive. Pick your attitude wisely. If you believe you can overcome your financial troubles, you’re more likely to make an effort. The power of positive thinking has been mythologized in the self-help canon, and this attitude is praised for a reason. Having a positive attitude impacts how you feel every day and every time you take your wallet out to pay a bill.

Be realistic. Being overly optimistic can quickly turn into denial. You need to turn a stern eye toward your bank account: it’s important to have a clear view of your expenses, your debts, and your income. It can be intimidating to look at these numbers, but knowing how much you have and owe will help you stay on top of your financial situation.

2. Make a plan

Any challenge can look insurmountable until you have a plan of attack mapped out. For example: maybe you’re daunted by doing the dishes after a big family dinner. Where do you begin?

  1. Start by surveying the room and all the dirty dishware.
  2. Decide how you’ll approach the task. Think through each stage and do any necessary prep work – perhaps take the trash bin out of its cabinet for easy access.
  3. Gather the dishes on the counter, and separate the utensils from the plates and cups as you work.
  4. Clean any leftovers off the plates and bowls.
  5. Load the dishwasher and add soap. Press start.

With apologies to anyone who has a passion for washing the dishes, this chore ranks highly among our least favorite. Without taking a step back and making a plan, it’s hard to get motivated to begin.

With a clear road to the end stage, the cheese stuck to your dinner plates looks intimidating. It becomes easy to imagine them clean again. The same strategy can be applied to your finances.

Plan for the week ahead. Whether you pick the next five workdays or the next seven days in full, taking life one week at a time is a great way to manage your finances.

Ask yourself how much you can afford to contribute to your savings account and how much you should set aside for monthly bills. By breaking these big costs down into weekly chunks, they’ll seem much more manageable (and less surprising than a bill at the end of the month).

Plan for the month ahead. The phrase “paycheck-to-paycheck” doesn’t have to apply to your financial life. Zoom out and think about your costs by month: how much of your income is devoted to these monthly expenses? How much can you afford to set aside for long-term planning like saving up to buy a house or car?

What can employers do to help employees cope with financial stress?

One of the simplest approaches an employer can take is to ask employees directly about their financial outlook. This can be a general conversation – there’s no need for it to be overly candid.

Showing interest in employees’ well-being may be welcomed in your work environment, or it may feel like an overreach. Communication around this topic can be sensitive, and it’s important to play close attention to the messages you send when you communicate about financial issues, whichever side of the desk you’re on.

A current trend in HR is for businesses to offer their employees free resiliency training or to offer an Employee Assistance Program (EAP). If you don’t feel comfortable talking to your supervisor about the financial challenges you’re facing, EAPs can be a welcome alternative.

Confidential counseling with outside professionals can be invaluable if you don’t know what resources are available to you. If you’re not sure if your benefits include an EAP, don’t hesitate to ask: asking for help is the most direct way to get it.


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