Lessons in loot

Why you can’t afford not to teach your employees how to better manage their money.

Consider an employee. Let’s call her Ana; she’s super-productive in the office and an asset to your team. She bought an under-construction condo unit. She got hit with extra costs when she moved in and put everything on her credit cards. Ana decorated her space with furniture from a don’t-pay-now-pay-later store. Now, demanding creditors, her worried mother and her infuriated boyfriend are calling during work hours. She took up smoking again, after giving it up five years ago, and coughs her way through her frequent smoke breaks. It turns out Ana is no longer productive, nor is she an asset. In fact, she’s a liability.

That’s just an example of what personal money problems look like in the workplace. “Financial issues really impact your personal life and your time spent at work,” says Judith Cohart, president and CEO of Washington, DC-based Personal Finance Employee Education Foundation. It’s not the employer’s fault, but that’s who bears some of the costs of an employee staggering under the weight of a money problem. A survey by Employee Financial Well-Being, a training company based in Toronto, pegs the cost of personal finance problems in Canada at $51 billion a year in lost productivity. That number could spike further if interest rates rise or if there’s another economic downturn. About 63% of Canadians spent more time thinking about finances than any other issue, according to a 2013 BMO study. If you’ve been pondering a personal finance education program for your team, here’s what we know about the workplace costs of personal money problems.


“When things fall apart, it becomes a time issue,” says Frank Wiginton, CEO of Toronto-based Employee Financial Well-Being and author of the book How to Eat an Elephant: Achieving Financial Success One Bite at a Time. Money problems often come calling from 9 to 5. Wiginton’s survey found that a quarter of Canadian employees are in financial distress, and those people devote about an hour a day of work time to their money issues. Also, the worry of finances can take its toll on efficiency. “Take the person who’s behind on credit card payments and is worrying about how he going to pay for that new furnace. What is he thinking about when at work?” says Jim Yih, owner of Financial Education in the Workplace in Edmonton.


Eventually, financial problems will prevent people from coming to work. They might take days off or call in sick to free up time to meet with bankers. Some get so swept up in the ripple effect of having long-term financial problems that they end up taking time away from the office for appointments with doctors, therapists and divorce lawyers. Caring for an aging parent who can’t afford to get into a nursing home or having to meet with yet another mortgage broker for a renewal, for example, are tasks caused by making poor financial decisions years ago. Stress, mental health and physical health problems can cause people to take sick days in the short term, and longer-term leaves if they get worse.

Stress and illness

“When you look at the studies and surveys from the past 25 years about the top causes of stress, the first two that keep coming back are work and money,” says Wiginton. (Case in point: a 2010 report from Statistics Canada found that one in four employees are stressed and the second biggest cause was finances.) Stress, of course, leads to unhealthy habits that cause physical and mental health problems. “Why are people binge eating comfort foods or suffering from sleep deprivation or reaching for a crutch with tobacco and alcohol?” Wiginton asks — he says it’s because of stress, often about money. These actions can lead to aches and pains, weight gain, diabetes, heart conditions and even cancer. They can also wreak havoc on our mental health and can be blamed for destroying relationships and can snowball into parenting problems. Twenty percent of Canadians will experience a mental health problem in their lifetimes, the most common of which are depression and anxiety. These conditions are certainly exacerbated by worries about bank accounts and how the bills will get paid.


“It’s not how much you make, it’s how you manage it,” says Cohart. But when someone’s having a rocky time making ends meet, they may turn the blame outward to the boss. You can get disgruntled employees who, particularly if they think they’re being underpaid, come in late or become sloppy and careless in their work and with clients. In more extreme cases, they may start expensing personal items or even consider stealing from the business. For certain, it’ll lead to more time surfing the want ads — and they’re most likely to do that when they’re sitting at their desks. Says Yih: “If you’ve got three kids, a mortgage and car payments and another employer is willing to give you an extra few thousand a year, you’ll take it.”


While about 20% of large companies in North America now offer financial literacy education programs on a regular basis, smaller companies struggle to find the best programs for their budgets. Judith Cohart has studied these programs and found they lead to people making better money choices. Employees feel appreciated by a well-run program. While it’s hard to track the ROI of helping your team with money, the feel-good factor is just another reason to believe the math will add up.

One option is to seek free training from your pension plan or employee assistance program. “Don’t bring in anyone who is selling something,” warns Frank Wiginton, CEO of Employee Financial Well-Being. Be sure anyone you bring in is teaching broad financial literacy, not simply telling employees how to contribute to their group RRSP, or touting an education savings program and collecting clients on the spot. “Change is hard,” says Jim Yih, owner of Financial Education in the Workplace. He thinks employees won’t learn — or possibly even attend — a learning session unless the instructor is delivering quality information in an entertaining, nonjudgmental way. Small education service providers or financial professionals who specialize in teaching adults about money should be able to offer a program starting at just a few thousand dollars a session. Running a program twice a year, to catch everyone on your team and deal with your employees’ changing financial needs, should translate into a good investment.


We all have a hard time with money. Judith Cohart of the Personal Finance Employee Education Foundation says that North Americans have adopted a want, not need, lifestyle when it comes to spending money. “We haven’t recognized that we teach people to read but not to manage their money.” Canadians now owe $164 for every $100 they make. A recent BMO survey found that one-third of Canadians expect to “rely heavily” on the Canadian Pension Plan (which pays out a mere $600 a month) and 34% are hoping to win the lottery to fund retirement. That’s some scary math.