De-stigmatizing debt at work

US consumer debt continues to climb with no end in sight, average US household owe more than $155,000 — an increase of more than six percent over last year. Homebuyers may soon be able to capitalize in a slowing housing market, but the supply chain issues that arose during the pandemic persist and federal relief measures to help U.S. households are no longer in play.

As debt continues to rise, so do financial shocks, which Pew defines as a significant loss of income or a major unexpected expense. Sixty percent of Americans experience one financial shock and one-third experience two or more per year. That puts more financial strain on American families, nearly 70% of whom don’t have emergency savings. These costs are typically around $2,000, which is half a month’s worth of income for the median household.

Exhausting any existing savings is often the first option when employees face a financial shock, and once they do, replenishing them is not easy. Nearly 50% of American workers who deplete their emergency savings have not been able to replenish them. After that, many employees, especially those with subprime credit scores, are forced to turn to expensive sources of credit, especially sources where they can get quick cash. Payday loans, online installment loans, pawnshops, and borrowing money from friends or family top the list.

Financial shocks can take many forms. Shannon, who works in a Nevada hospital system, needed $23,000 to repair the house where she lives with her daughter and grandchildren after a flood destroyed it. For Jenell, a teacher who supplements her salary by traveling during the summer and training other teachers, COVID-19 has cost her at least $10,000 in salary she has depended on. Water heaters break, unexpected medical bills crop up and the list goes on.

This has a profound effect on business. Employees struggling with high-cost debt are more likely experience financial stress, which makes them vulnerable to depression, anxiety and difficult relationships with family, friends and co-workers. They feel shame and panic and are constantly nervous, worried when the next financial storm will hit. At work, half of the employees Stressed out by debt spend an average of one hour a week dealing with debt-related issues at work. And they are more than twice as likely to seek another employer.

Read more: Financial literacy matters to Gen Z — and they want employers to help them

With debt so prevalent, why is it still a taboo subject in corporate America? And, more importantly, how can business leaders change the conversation about debt internally?

End the stigma
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, companies were on the verge of becoming more empathetic, but not so fast. Only 13% of employees say they can talk openly about money at work and get the help they need and, in a recent Gallup poll of more than 15,000 workers, only a quarter answered that they strongly agreed that their employer cared about their well-being – half the percentage who answered this way at the start of the pandemic.

This is disheartening news for employees, many of whom fear exposing their financial shortcomings, believing it implies weakness and could impact their position at work.

Read more: It’s time for new financial security benefits that meet the needs of low-income workers

For employers to end the stigma of talking about finances — and debt, in particular — at work, they need to recapture that empathy they’ve proven themselves capable of during the pandemic and create a culture of openness, supportive and non-judgmental.

This builds trust with employees and, over time, loyalty. As a workerMonique, said of her business providing wellness benefits, “It just made me like my employer more because they don’t just pay me, they also help me financially, as well as health and mental health.”

Implement programs that prioritize financial resilience
While empathy allows workers to open up, it is supported by programs and benefits that keep them from leaving. Over 40% of workers in a recent survey said they quit their jobs in search of better benefits.

Employers took notice, especially when workers during the Great Resignation fled their jobs for better opportunities and benefits. Eighty-five percent said their benefits data is important in defining their benefits strategy. For employers, this means knowing their workers and the challenges they face, including finances. Six in 10 workers say financial wellness benefits that promote savings are a top priority.

Read more: How to build financial security and savings for low-income workers

Salary-related benefits can provide employees with access to emergency savings accounts or affordable credit that allows them to pay off high-cost existing debt. This allows them to save more money for unexpected expenses that may arise in the future.

The pain that workers feel because of the debt is real. This leads to anxiety, stress and other mental health issues that affect them not only at home but also at work. Employers have an opportunity ahead of them: take a page out of the pandemic playbook and show greater empathy and put in place support programs that help workers effectively manage debt and build financial resilience. .