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TELUS Health Conference 2024: Exploring the link between mental health and financial security

Wellbeing has mental, physical and financial components, within the context of a social environment, explained Paula Allen, Global Leader and Vice-President, Research and Client Insights, at TELUS Health at the 20th TELUS Health Annual Conference in April 2024. As a result, employers who want to optimize employee wellbeing must be aware of potential threats on any and all of those fronts. 

In her session, “Bridging the gap between mental health and financial security,” Allen focused on one pain point in each category: anxiety (mental), chronic pain (physical), emergency savings (financial) and isolation (social environment) and provided tips on how employers can address these challenges.

Financial risk, Allen emphasized, consistently shows up in the TELUS Health Mental Health Index as one of the strongest drivers of overall mental wellbeing – and the absence of emergency savings has one of the biggest impacts. In fact, not having emergency savings resulted in average mental health scores 25 points lower on a 100-point scale. 

 “If you don’t have that safety net, there is a high level of vulnerability that – even if you’re not thinking about it on an ongoing basis – it impacts you.”

“We have looked at this from every perspective – younger individuals, older individuals, people who have higher income, as well as people who have lower income, work experience, every angle you can imagine. And there is always that difference that separates those with emergency savings from those [without],” Allen said. “If you don’t have that safety net, there is a high level of vulnerability that – even if you’re not thinking about it on an ongoing basis – it impacts you.” 

Other factors are contributing to financial vulnerability, too, with three in 10 workers digging into their savings to maintain their standard of living, four in 10 feeling overwhelmed by debt and four in 10 concerned or unsure about their financial future. Nevertheless, two in three are not seeking financial advice for debt when needed and nearly three in five haven’t received financial advice related to investing or retirement planning. Meanwhile, financial security is such a priority that one in three in the most recent Index said they would leave their current employer for guaranteed pension income – with no difference by gender, but a higher percentage (42 per cent) among those 40 and younger. 

Employers often have programs in place to help employees better manage their financial situation. However, as Allen pointed out, “Many people still don’t understand the full scope of what’s offered in a typical employee assistance program (EAP), and that financial consultation is part of those programs… We have an opportunity to communicate much more specifically [that this is] one of the places that people can go confidentially to get support, to get information, to help them [find] a better path.” 

Because financial wellbeing is so tightly linked to mental health, Allen said no workplace mental health strategy can afford to ignore it. Furthermore, a financial wellbeing strategy should ideally account for the impact on mental health and wellbeing and incorporate these outcomes in its business case.

Other factors that put wellbeing at risk

Social isolation and chronic loneliness have been recognized by the World Health Organization as a health threat and can significantly increase risk of premature death from all causes – rivalling smoking, obesity and physical inactivity. Relationships built on trust are key to addressing isolation, yet 45 per cent of workers in Canada do not have trusted relationships at work. Allen stressed that working to build a high-trust organization leads to improvements in worker productivity, engagement and satisfaction, with less stress and burnout and fewer sick days.

“Feeling a part of something, feeling a sense of belonging, feeling that connection we know measurably reduces people’s stress, [while] isolation increases their stress,” said Allen. “It’s so critical when we are talking about building resilience.” 

Anxiety has been worsening as workers navigate environments of rapid, unpredictable, ongoing change. Three in four 20-something workers say they are uncertain about coping or struggle with adapting to change. The numbers drop with age, but remain at 61 per cent among 30-somethings, 51 per cent among 40-somethings, 45 per cent among 50-somethings and 32 per cent among 60-somethings. Again, employers have an opportunity to increase awareness of EAPs and what they provide – especially since four in 10 workers don’t know what an EAP is or have never heard of one. 

“Social support … is one of the most natural and one of the strongest things to address this tension that comes from rapid pace of change – feeling that you’re going through it together,” Allen said. “We also know that cognitive behavioural therapy is helpful because it helps us build the skills to understand how to manage.”

Chronic pain affects a surprising number of workers – young and older – including about one in five 20-somethings, 30-somethings and 40-somethings, and more than one in four 50-somethings and 60-somethings. Ongoing pain has a significant impact on mental health, and this is especially true among younger workers. Furthermore, having both a physical health condition and a mental health condition increases recovery time, the risk of adverse events and costs. Allen suggested that employers need to resist the temptation to compartmentalize and see if there’s an opportunity to support someone’s physical health when they have a mental health condition, and vice versa. 

“Wellbeing is about helping people to be at their best,” Allen concluded. “I definitely see the possibility for improvement, but … it’s not going to improve unless we’re intentional about it.” 

View the presentation: