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Talking about Mental Health: Financial wellbeing

12 May 2020 - By Jacki Houtwipper

Latest global thought leadership tells us that our financial wellbeing should be a primary focus. Research globally and in New Zealand shows us that there is a direct link between financial stress, and our physical and mental wellbeing.

When you’re a lawyer, you often have high levels of stress. I’ve experienced it. And our broader lives and life events can cause us stress too.

Until debt tear us apart

COVID-19 is an extreme example of an event that is having a major impact on our lives at this time. It has disrupted our very way of living, as well as impacting our economy, and the livelihoods of many. In these difficult and uncertain times, it’s natural to be worried, and it’s more important now than ever to prioritise putting some focus on your financial wellbeing.  By getting clear on your financial position and taking action to manage it, you will be able to ease your financial stress, and in turn be more resilient and able to manage through the challenges that life may present.

Even if you’re not particularly stressed or worried about money, what if you could enhance your wellbeing and enjoyment of life, and have a better future, by putting some priority on your financial wellbeing?

Money is a taboo subject. For many New Zealanders, fear, shame or embarrassment stops them from talking about it or getting help.

I’ve learnt first-hand about the importance of financial wellbeing, how to strengthen it, and the difference that can make to your life.

So, to start with, here’s my story. Spoiler alert - I use the ‘M’ word, and the ‘F’ word (money and fear), and I’m okay with that…

Fear, guilt and stress - learning from the past

My parents came from poor backgrounds.  My father got a scholarship to go to university and worked incredibly hard to get to the senior ranks of a prominent New Zealand engineering firm and provide for our family. My sister and I were both encouraged to go to university. We’ve had successful careers (and lives) by most standards.  I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunities and experiences I’ve had, and the challenges and learnings along the way.

My father was extremely focused on financial security. His relentless drive to ensure we had educations that would enable us to earn well sprang from his past, his deep love for us and determination to make sure we would be okay. From the way money was talked about, the predominant feelings I took forward were fear, guilt and stress. It was subtle, but pervasive, with a huge emphasis on working extremely hard and doing your absolute best.

For the most part, that has served me well.  On the flip side, at times, those feelings, pressure and stress around money have been harmful to my health, my wellbeing and my relationships. Undeniably, the times of high stress had a major impact. Earlier in my career I suffered from a chronic pain/fatigue condition. Luckily, I recovered fully from that.

Over time, I have learnt how important it is to prioritise your wellbeing, be clear about what you really value, and how you want to live your life.

A key part of that for me has been prioritising my financial wellbeing. It’s not an exaggeration to say that has made a significant difference to my life - easing my stress, freeing up my mind, my time and energy for the people and things that are important to me.

Now I’m far more resilient and able to deal with unexpected shocks and life events. To complete the circle of the story of my father: this highly intelligent and capable man is now in the advanced stages of dementia. It’s a debilitating, stressful, arduous journey for us all, and it only gets worse. It has emphasised for me the importance of minimising all the stress in life that you can, so that you have the capacity to deal with the hard times, and the energy to give and enjoy life’s happier moments.

What is financial wellbeing?

The common elements in definitions of financial wellbeing are:

Resilience: The ability to cope with a ‘financial shock’ (a significant, unexpected expense or fall in income), eg, three months’ worth of income saved.

Comfort: Feeling in control of your current and future financial situation, and able to do things you enjoy.

Managing the day-to-day: The ability to meet your day-to-day financial commitments without relying on credit for regular expenses, bills, or loan payments.

There are some common misconceptions people have around money that the research has debunked:

  • Financial wellbeing is NOT about how much money you have. The research clearly establishes that it's mostly a state of mind - influenced by feelings, expectations and behaviour.
  • Anyone, regardless of their income, age or stage of life can have low financial wellbeing. A high income doesn’t necessarily mean strong financial wellbeing, and vice versa - those with low incomes can have high financial wellbeing.
  • Previous research and institutional focus has been on retirement, but many people are worried about day to day expenses and unexpected financial shocks.
  • Don’t worry if you’re ‘not a numbers person’, or you think that financial concepts are boring. Financial literacy and financial capability are out of date, limiting concepts that are not particularly relevant (although unfortunately, what some in the sector still focus on). Financial wellbeing is the new black, and it’s really about what you do with your money. Taking action is what’s important.

How common is financial stress?

If you’re feeling stressed about money, or you feel that your financial wellbeing could be stronger, you’re not alone.  An ANZ financial wellbeing survey in 2018 showed that many New Zealanders, regardless of their income, were: ‘struggling to meet day-to-day financial commitments, were not feeling comfortable with their financial situation and had little financial resilience for the future.’ (ANZ, ‘Financial Wellbeing – a Survey of Adults in New Zealand’, April 2018). With the impacts of COVID-19, many more may find themselves in this position.

In that same survey, only 23% of New Zealanders classify themselves as ‘No worries’ when it comes to their finances.

Studies of employees consistently show that financial stresses are their biggest concern by far, well ahead of other stressors like their work or relationships.

Financial wellbeing & mental health

Research clearly shows that worrying about money can affect mental health. It can cause anxiety, depression, affect sleep and cause relationship issues.

A UK study in 2019 involving 11,000 employees found that 62% of employees said they were affected by money worries

  • 1 in 3 had felt stressed.
  • 1 in 3 had felt anxious.
  • 1 in 4 had lost sleep.
  • 1 in 5 had felt depressed.

(Neyber UK Workforce Study September 2019. Neyber ‘DNA of Financial Wellbeing’ research report 2019-2020.)

In the December 2019 issue of LawTalk, Alice Anderson referred to the commonly used model for understanding Māori health, Te Whare Tapa Whā. One of the four dimensions of wellbeing is Taha Hinengaro (mental wellbeing). This is where financial wellbeing sits. As Alice explained, if one of the four walls of the wharenui is missing, damaged or weak, a person may become unbalanced or unwell. In my previous work, I have engaged with kaumatua and experts in Māori wellbeing. The concepts we have identified together for financial wellbeing include: “how’s the mauri of your relationship with money?” (mauri means the vital essence, source of emotions, or special nature); Oranga pūtea (financial wellbeing); and whāngai (meaning to nourish, foster, and nurture). These are powerful concepts that resonate and illustrate the integral role that money plays in our lives.

Putting your focus on financial wellbeing – as individuals and employers

Just like you might exercise, eat nutritious food, and get good sleep, you can take steps to strengthen your financial wellbeing. In fact, global thought leadership suggests that feeling secure about your finances sits in the foundational/primary sectors of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs . Other wellbeing activities, such as exercise and nutrition, are further down the hierarchy. Many wellbeing programmes focus on the latter.  However, for the large number of people who are suffering from financial stress, unless and until that is addressed, they are less able to engage in those activities. They are also less able to cope with the demands of their work, strategic transformation, or change.

Globally, governments and thought leaders are recognising that societies only move forward if wellbeing is addressed, and the way to do that at scale across society is through the organisations that people work for.

In the workplace:

  • There is extensive research proving that providing support to employees for their financial wellbeing leads to a more productive workforce, higher employee engagement on multiple key measures, lower HR/payroll spend, better culture, better retention and attraction.
  • Wellbeing is increasingly being recognised as the only strategy to create viable bottom line impact in today’s world. It is often included as a key pillar in organisations’ sustainability and social responsibility strategies.

The financial wellbeing continuum

You can think about financial wellbeing as a continuum, stretching from high financial stress at one end to empowerment and enjoyment at the other.

The good news is you can move along the continuum. You can shift from feelings of anxiety, frustration, guilt, lack of confidence, and money worries disrupting your sleep, work and relationships, to feeling confident, comfortable, and enjoying what life has to offer.

The key is taking action and being clear about what’s really important to you.

  • The first step is to build a detailed picture of your financial position. That means working out what you earn and (realistically) what you spend (a.k.a a budget) and making sure you are putting some of what you earn towards your financial future. There are multiple tools that are available for this, and many are free. It doesn’t matter so much which tool you choose – try them out and see which one appeals to you - the important thing is to be using something to get clear on your personal position.
  • Then set some goals about where you want to be – make them manageable and specific about the steps you are going to take. Write them down and make them meaningful – if you can identify what’s important to you (your personal ‘why’ for achieving your goal), then you’re much more likely to get to where you want to be.
  • In terms of actual practical steps to get there, you can set up an automatic payment to direct money that comes from your income into a separate account that you don’t touch, and enjoy seeing it grow. The feeling of ‘spending on your future’ is much more satisfying than spending on things you don’t really need. It may seem like a cliché, but the COVID-19 world is surely teaching us that our health, and the health of those around us that we love, is more important than many of the things we may have put value on before.

I shifted from not having any financial goals, not managing my spending or saving, or my future (a.k.a not doing anything to support my financial wellbeing), to setting goals, taking control of my spending, exploring ways to invest for my future and then taking action to achieve that.

It gave me comfort when I had clarity on where I was at and identified what I needed to do to get ahead, and why it was important for me. By taking action, I felt better, and that encouraged and empowered me to take more action and get further ahead.

Why wouldn’t you?

As a final insight – it can be useful to examine the reasons for why you might not be focusing on your financial wellbeing. If you’re honest with yourself and what’s really important to you, you’ll probably find that the benefits of prioritising your financial wellbeing are really compelling, and the reasons you may be avoiding it just don’t stack up.

Maybe you have been busy or distracted with other things that seem more important? Maybe you think there’s time to focus on it later in life?

  • The OECD’s How’s Life 2020 report found that 53% of New Zealanders would be at risk of poverty if they had to forgo three months of their income.COVID-19 should reinforce to all of us that you never know what might happen. It’s best to do what it takes now to get some funds built up to help you manage in case you need it.
  • The great thing about money is that the sooner you start, the more benefit you get. Don’t delay! Small amounts now will multiply over time for your future.
“The goal isn’t more money. The goal is living life on your terms.”
- Chris Brogan

Jacki Houtwipper jacki.houtwipper@gmail.com has been a technology lawyer in top New Zealand law firms and held General Counsel/senior in-house roles in multinational tech companies in New Zealand and overseas. She has also held senior business roles in a major New Zealand bank, and her most recent role focused specifically on financial wellbeing.

Jacki welcomes the opportunity to talk to people and organisations about how improving financial wellbeing can make a tangible difference at a personal and enterprise level.

Sarah Taylor is the co-ordinator of this series, a senior lawyer, and the Director of Client Solutions at LOD, a law firm focused on the success and wellbeing of lawyers. If you’d like to contribute to this series, please contact Sarah at sarah.taylor@lodlaw.com

Last updated on the 12th May 2020