How to support your employees through times of increased vulnerability


Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, many people have been plunged into a state of increased vulnerability. Sometimes this vulnerability has been physical, other times mental or financial, or a combination of all three.

How to support your employees through times of increased vulnerability

Even before the pandemic had reshaped the lives of many of us, 46% of UK adults demonstrated one or more vulnerable characteristic.*

Vulnerability can affect how people engage with their employers too. Particularly around important topics relating to their benefits, pension and general wellbeing.

So for employers to fully support their employees, it’s important that they’re able to recognise vulnerability among their workforce. And, where possible, encourage open conversation about it.

The drivers of vulnerability

According to the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), there are four key drivers that could increase the risk of vulnerability:

  1. Health – conditions or illnesses that affect people’s ability to carry out day-to-day activities.
  2. Life events – major life events such as bereavement, job loss or relationship breakdown.
  3. Financial resilience – low ability to withstand financial or emotional shocks.
  4. Financial capability – low financial understanding or low confidence in managing money, including low capability in other areas such as literacy, numeracy and digital skills.

What’s more troubling is that these drivers often feed into one another to create a cycle of difficulty.

To help understand the problem further, Phoenix Group and Standard Life undertook research* into the extent and nature of vulnerability among its customer bases between July and August 2020. These combined findings tell us a lot about the general level of vulnerability among UK workforces since the pandemic began. They should also help employers understand how to support their employees during these challenging times.

The research found that almost two-thirds (63%) of people displayed one or more characteristic of vulnerability. Lower financial capability was the most common form of vulnerability (42%); followed by one or more negative life events in the last six months (33%); then financial resilience (21%); and finally health (10%).

Financial capability

Low financial capability can make it difficult for a person to make decisions and plan for their future. It can also make it harder to cope with other challenges that may affect them now or later in life, such as health problems.

Only around 20% of people said they need help from friends and family with financial decisions. Yet Standard Life’s research found that:

  • 28% don’t understand enough to make pension and retirement decisions
  • 29% aren’t confident planning their financial future
  • 41% aren’t confident managing money/making financial decisions.

This suggests that many people who need help from others to make decisions don’t receive it or don’t ask for it.

Life events

Major life events such as bereavement, job loss or relationship breakdown can seriously affect financial resilience, as well as mental health. To be able to effectively support employees going through major life events, they first need to be understood and acknowledged.

It’s also important to recognise that sometimes the life events affecting your employees might be more varied than you think. Changes such as a child leaving home, buying or selling a home, and the birth of a child are examples of other types of life events that might have an impact on your employees’ financial resilience or mental health.

The combined research found that those experiencing life events were also:

  • more likely to feel the pandemic/current situation would impact their savings goals (51%)
  • more likely to expect to use savings to help them through this next year (42%)
  • more likely to be struggling or falling behind on their bills/commitments (32%).

Reaching out for help

The research found that people had a range of reactions when finding themselves in a challenging position. Reaching out to friends and family was, unsurprisingly, most likely.

Discussing matters with their employer, however, was usually only done out of necessity, if trying to discuss working options to manage a challenging or stressful situation. People said that this experience could be a source of support, but in some cases lead to additional stress.

The research also found that those with chronic vulnerabilities – for example financial capability or long-term health challenges – often won’t approach their employer without either being prompted or hitting a tipping point. In many cases, they see their situation as “just the way things are”.

So how you choose to communicate about this could make a huge difference to whether your employees open up about their vulnerabilities, and potentially receive the help they need.

How you can support your vulnerable employees

So what can employers practically do to support employees who may currently feel more vulnerable?

Well, understanding that vulnerability comes in many different shapes and sizes is vital. And, when engaging with employees on a personal level, your choice of language can make a big difference.

People generally don’t accept and reveal their ‘vulnerabilities’ lightly, according to the research. Although many people at some point feel vulnerable, most wouldn’t use that word to describe themselves.

But many people do associate with the FCA’s drivers of vulnerability – health, life events, financial resilience and financial capability. So framing challenging circumstances around these four drivers may help employees to recognise their vulnerabilities, accept the difficulties of their current situation and reach out for help.

Contacting someone to communicate a change in circumstances and requesting assistance is a big step for many. So people need reassurance that they won’t be judged, and know that they’ll receive support if they do reach out. And, of course, receiving empathy is vital.

This article is provided by Standard Life.

* Financial Conduct Authority’s Finalised Guidance (FG21/1) for firms on the fair treatment of vulnerable customers

**Conducted by Phoenix Group in partnership with Gusto research agency. Quantitative and qualitative research was done by speaking to customers across both Standard Life Assurance Limited and Phoenix Life to fully understand vulnerability and its drivers.


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