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Unmotivated employees? Financial stress could be the culprit, say surveys

The health and performance of a growing number of workers is being affected by worries related to money

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Concerned and worried young man sitting at his office desk with laptop, writing in a note pad after hoursAccording to The Canadian Payroll Association’s 2018 Survey of Employees, 46 per cent of the respondents said financial stress is impacting workplace performance (Shutterstock/Altitude Visual)

How does financial stress impact employee motivation? That was the question tackled by France Dufresne, talent and communication leader at Willis Towers Watson, Canada, at a Montreal luncheon organized in March by FEI Canada.

Based on two Willis Towers Watson surveys on employee benefits and HR best practices, Dufresne identified four employee types: the financially “unworried” (43 per cent); the “future worries,” who experience long-term financial concerns only (20 per cent); the “current worries,” whose concerns are focused on the short term (14 per cent); and the “struggling,” who are worried about both the short and long term (23 per cent).

According to the surveys, the “struggling” experience financial pressure on a daily basis, with 78 per cent living paycheque to paycheque (compared with 66 per cent in the “current worries” cohort). Slightly more than half (51 per cent) borrow from friends or family due to high personal debt, and 43 per cent report difficulty covering household expenses. 

Similarly, in The Canadian Payroll Association’s (CPA) 2018 Survey of Employees, 44 per cent of respondents said it would be difficult to fulfill financial obligations if their paycheque was delayed by just a week. Forty per cent of those surveyed also indicated that they feel overwhelmed by the amount of debt they carried. 


Saving for retirement and managing debt were the top two biggest personal financial concerns cited by respondents in the 2018 CPA Canada Canadian Finance Study. Being prepared for family emergencies, such as serious illness or death, came in third place. Fifty per cent of Canadians surveyed for the study also indicated they would need to work past the age of 65 as they couldn’t afford to retire.

“Financial stress is growing,” says Kim Anto, financial well-being leader and director of retirement at Willis Towers Watson, Canada. “Twenty-nine per cent of respondents couldn’t come up with $2,000 in an emergency, while 23 per cent expect to work until age 70. From easier access to credit to the shift from defined benefit to defined contribution pension plans—workers are facing a greater financial burden.”

As a result, financial stress is impacting workplace performance according to 46 per cent of the respondents in the Canadian Payroll Association’s survey. Being overwhelmed by financial worries can also cause health problems, suggest the Willis Towers Watson surveys. As per their results, the “struggling” are twice as likely to suffer from poor health, and four times as likely to have sleep problems, headaches and other illnesses. This group also reports high stress levels (61 per cent), with approximately one third being disengaged at work, and absent twice as often as their “unworried” peers. 

The “unworried” are comparably better off with 71 per cent reporting that they are satisfied with their current financial situation, and 28 per cent saying they live with high stress. It follows, then, that only one in 10 employees (12 per cent) in this cohort lacks motivation at work.


Employee disengagement can come at a price, which the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada (FCAC) estimates at $1,000 in lost productivity per employee per year (around US$2,000 according to research by U.S. firm John Hancock).

“Employers need to act,” says Anto, noting that 48 per cent of employees think it’s their employer’s responsibility to offer financial wellness programs and other tools. “Employers have a role to play in improving their employees’ financial well-being, especially since it isn’t getting any better, despite all the information available.” [See Starting today, make your employees’ mental health a priority]

Luckily, there is a clear strategy, says Anto. “First, employers need to understand their employees’ financial concerns by analyzing different segments of the population,” he recommends. Indeed, Millennials, Gen X and Baby Boomers won’t have the same concerns. “Next, they need to find the right tools to help employees make the right decisions at the right time. For example, it’s unrealistic to think everyone will prepare a budget.” A digital portal, for example, could provide access to financial assistance programs, financial advisers and other online tools.

Anto recommends employers consider that each generation faces its own challenges, such as paying off student loans, buying a first home, raising kids or planning for retirement. It’s crucial to support workers at each of these milestones, she adds. 

“Lastly, you should leverage technology and treat employees like consumers by offering dynamic decision-making tools that meet their various needs,” she says. “Platforms, such as myFitAge (by Willis Tower Watson) or My EAP app (by Morneau Shepell), allow employees to create customized goal setting based on their current financial situation,” she says.

Some companies surveyed have put financial support programs or services in place with 55 per cent providing individual advice to employees with short-term financial worries, and 31 per cent helping employees set financial goals, while others have assisted more financially challenged groups set goals around major life events including marriage, family planning and first-time home purchases.

“Employees should feel encouraged, not judged,” says Anto. “The trust that’ll develop along the way is essential to implement a successful financial wellness program, one that should be part of the organization’s larger wellness strategy,” she says


From April 2018 to March 2019, CPA Canada collaborated with FCAC and members of its financial literacy working group for the workplace to help inform the development of its Financial wellness in the workplace program. 

“Our program provides information, tools and resources for employers on how to build financial wellness programs to improve the well-being of their employees, as well as information for employees on why and how they should invest in their own financial well-being,” says Jérémie Ryan, director, financial literacy and stakeholder engagement at FCAC. “CPA Canada was also instrumental in helping FCAC facilitate financial literacy workshops to federal public servants through the government’s new drop-in Centre of Innovation for Mental Health.”

In addition to its work with FCAC, CPA Canada also had an opportunity to participate in the development of Excellence Canada’s new Financial Health Standard for its Canada Awards for Excellence program. Each year, the program recognizes Canadian organizations in all sectors for their outstanding achievements in improving the living and working conditions of their employees. And according to Doretta Thompson, CPA Canada’s financial literacy leader, this investment doesn’t have to be expensive. 

“There are many free resources available to employers, from the tools on FCAC’s website to CPA Canada’s no cost financial literacy programs which our CPA volunteers bring to workplaces across Canada,” she says. “Research shows that employees welcome such learning opportunities in the workplace, and that it lays a foundation that, over time, helps employees improve financial planning and decision making. Research also shows that the resulting reduction in financial stress leads, over time, to improved performance and reduced employee stress and absenteeism.”


CPA Canada offers no-cost workshops for employees with a CPA Canada volunteer to help improve their overall financial health. There are over 40 sessions available to book on a wide-range of topics, from family responsibilities and personal finances to working in business.