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23 Jan 2023
by Laura Matthews, Julia Turney

Is the cost of living crisis making your employees ill?

How to adapt your mental wellbeing strategy to the challenges being thrown at people

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

A recent survey from the Royal College of Physicians found that more than half of respondents felt rising costs had negatively affected their health. This could stem from the effects of cold or hunger brought on by soaring food and energy bills, other cost issues causing stress, or an overall lack of sleep. All of this, in turn, can affect concentration and productivity at work.

Consider the cost implications of these issues on 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

To start, consider reviewing your organisation’s pay strategy to see if a cost-of-living bonus or targeted financial support for employees is affordable, reducing shorter-term stress and anxiety. Considerations need to be given to ensure this doesn’t affect those claiming some 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 beyond it.

Data analytics will also help identify and confirm the issues being faced by employees, the scale 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 some 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, while guaranteeing that they are suitable for all at different life stages.

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

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 free up a pot of money that could help go towards essentials such as food or heating.

Consider financial wellbeing benefits such as early earned wage access, or give employees access to a loan facility via a salary sacrifice arrangement, allowing them to access loans at more preferential rates than the high street. You can even fulfil these yourselves if you are in a position to.

Also consider salary advances, on agreeable repayment terms, 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.

Create a supportive environment

Encourage your employees to discuss their worries with their line managers. Train your line managers to recognise if an employee is not themselves, in having 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 manage their mental health goes a long way, by helping to build resilience with mindfulness and healthy mindful behaviours. 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.

Should all else fail and employees 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. 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 that are fit for both the organisation and the employee.

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