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Financial stress is hurting worker productivity

Half said they were not certain they could come up with $1,000 in an emergency.istockphoto

The recession ended nearly six years ago. The stock market has doubled in value since then. But Americans are still so stressed out about money and finances it's even affecting their productivity at work.

A study by State Street Global Advisors in Boston found that large numbers of workers are experiencing emotional or physical stress that's related to dealing with their personal finances. About 61 percent of 1,000 workers surveyed across all ages and incomes said they were moderately to severely stressed about their finances.

Half said they were not certain they could come up with $1,000 in an emergency.

"The data's really powerful around how distracted employees are,'' said Megan Yost, a vice president at State Street Global who works on retirement plans. "They're not just at work and distracted; people are actually taking days off and missing work to deal with financial stress."


Stagnant wages and competing demands on workers' wallets — from mortgages and day care to student loans and saving for retirement — are often to blame. If the employee gym was the 1990s answer to employers fretting over rising health care costs, "financial wellness" is today's buzzword in human resources offices.

In December, State Street Global held a brainstorming session with executives from a dozen Fortune 500 companies, plus some academics, to talk about the issue. At a daylong session in Manhattan, they represented a variety of industries and employees, from the highly compensated to those in manufacturing jobs or driving trucks.

Barbara Kontje of American Express Co. was among those attending the session. She's director of Retirement Americas & Smart Saving for 21,000 employees at the New York-based financial services company. Even in her industry, she said, concerns about finances abound.

"Money is always top of mind'' when she talks to employees, Kontje said. "They want to do better with their money. They know they should be saving for retirement. They know they should have an emergency fund. They just don't know where to start."


Even the federal government is on to the problem. In a report in August, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau said many Americans lie awake at night wondering how to make ends meet.

In 2012, the government said, one in five workers admitted to skipping work to deal with a financial issue.

Financial stress is worst at lower income levels, according to State Street, but it doesn't stop there. Among those earning less than $75,000 a year, two of every three people reported being stressed. For those earning more than $75,000, it was a bit more than half.

Beyond income, stress levels are largely determined by how much money people have available in cash or investments. Those with less than $50,000 in savings and investments suffer the most, according to the State Street study, with more three-quarters saying they experience money stress.

The situation doesn't improve dramatically until workers accumulate more than $150,000 in investable assets, State Street found. Still, 42 percent of people in that group reported feeling stressed.

At higher levels of pay, the problem becomes more about spending habits than earning power, State Street's Yost said. But nearly half of the people between the ages of 29 and 69 who took part in the survey said they were living paycheck to paycheck.

Rosario Cabrera, a personal care assistant from New Bedford, knows that all too well. She is 31 years old with two kids, working seven days a week caring for people who are sick and homebound, earning $13.38 an hour.


"I struggle every day,'' Cabrera said. Having just paid the rent and her bills, she said, she's got $89 left in her bank account. "That's going to have to hold me until next week,'' she said.

Even with the improved economy, workers' financial worries are painfully common.

Another recent survey, commissioned by the Boston communications firm Brodeur Partners, found that people think about money more than about sex. While most workers think about their families and their spouses most, they worry about money 69 percent of the time — more than about religion, work, or their sex and love lives.

"There are just very few people who aren't thinking about money,'' said Andrea Coville, chief executive of Brodeur. "That's a lens you have to understand when you're talking to people."

That's an issue for employers trying to encourage workers to save for retirement, executives said. It's why State Street Global, a giant investment manager that caters to corporate retirement plans, pension funds, and other large institutional investors, is spending time and money in the weeds of workers' financial angst.

This era's corporate gym comes in the form of company-sponsored sessions on mortgages and investing, one-on-ones with financial advisers, and webinars. Kontje said Amex has cut some of its online financial education programs to 30 minutes or even 15 minutes, to make them more convenient for workers to watch off-hours.


The most money-stressed age group is 30 to 39, according to the State Street study, the age range when many people marry, have babies, and save for other major expenses.

"It's clearly a demographic that needs the help and wants the help," Yost said.

Beth Healy can be reached at beth.healy@globe.com. Follow her
on Twitter @HealyBeth.