HR Indaba session looks at the importance of employees’ financial wellness

Mental health, emotional wellbeing, and financial fitness are interlinked, panellists told the audience.

Before the pandemic, South Africa’s economy was already strained, and the addition of Covid-19 restrictions seriously exacerbated the situation. Many employees either had their salaries docked or were retrenched, adding to the already high unemployment rate. Others found themselves in situations where they had to support additional family members, creating more pressure on their existing financial obligations.

With this in mind, this year’s virtual HR Indaba held an Impact Session on helping employees weather the extra stress that Covid-19 brought.

Anne Grunow, CHRO at Fedgroup, told participants that employees are more likely to turn to their employers when they are facing financial hardship – but that it was difficult for them to do so. “It takes an enormous amount of courage for an employee to open up to their employers when they are financially vulnerable,” she said.

Anne was candid about the effectiveness of having a generic, holistic approach to employee wellbeing. Fedgroup employees could previously access wellness programs via an app. But they had very little employee engagement on this platform.

“They wanted more personal, one-on-one support, and you cannot get that on an app,” she explained. Fedgroup then enlisted a counsellor’s services, and staff could open up about the knock-on effects additional financial strain was having in their day-to-day lives. “Families were affected in numerous ways: some were being abused, relationships were breaking down, and in some cases people were suicidal,” she said.

It became apparent that they needed a more practical approach. Fedgroup partnered with a banking institution that enabled staff to access financial assistance at lower rates. They also began providing online financial literacy training that included money managing basics like how to budget and file taxes. “Putting things down on paper and having a plan is the first step to solving a financial crisis, and we’ve found it’s been helpful,” said Anne.

Intelligent Debt Management’s Natasha Mariller was at pains to point out that financial distress is not necessarily a by-product of being financially irresponsible. “Financial distress doesn’t discriminate,” said Natasha. “It is something everyone will experience, because life is unpredictable.”

She said Intelligent Debt employees, despite being financial professionals, were not immune to financial strain. “As a company, we are working to create conversations about debt awareness in the country; we had to turn that effort inward,” said Natasha. “It’s about creating a safe space to have the honest money talk. People need a sense of community, support, and the tools to solve financial problems.”

When money is tight, cost-cutting measures are necessary. Momentum Actuaries and Consulting’s Emda Fourie said employers who felt the strain during the pandemic were granted some relief from regulators. “They were allowed to suspend retirement annuity contributions, but they encouraged employees to keep paying insurance premiums,” said Emda, because once premium payments are stopped, the individual would be unable to claim.

She said death and disability claims increased by 30 percent as of June 2020. At least 75 percent of companies reduced their workforce through retrenchments, which was three times the normal average. And some 10 percent of companies are still making use of the Covid-19 relief fund.

Natasha said it was time for companies to weigh the difference between ‘benefit’ and ‘benefits’. Standard employee assistance programmes treat the symptom, not the root cause of distress, she added. “I am not saying there shouldn’t be benefits, but there needs to be an understanding of the employee’s circumstances.”

She said personalised benefits could become a popular option in the future. Emda agreed, saying the days of pushing products were over.