Employees want help with their financial stress

Does it strike you as strange that the biggest stressor we face isn’t talked about in plans offered to help with our stress?

In recent years employers have recognised the personal stresses experienced by staff can affect productivity and the bottom line, due partly to the sheer amount of our lives we spend at work and no doubt partly due to increased workloads.

In response, workplace ‘wellness’ programs are everywhere these days, especially in large companies – acknowledging the impact of unhappy staff on the bottom line.

Now there’s evidence from the United States that workplace wellness programs might be missing the mark but not addressing one of the biggest causes of issues in the personal lives of workers – their personal finances.

A new online survey of 511 American employees, done in mid-April by Four Seasons Financial Education, found people wanted financial stress addressed in their corporate wellness plan but 70 per cent of those whose company did offer something said assistance on personal finances was not included.
It’s not just in the US that this mismatch is happening. Financial wellness is not commonly an element in corporate wellness programs in Australian workplaces either.

Corporate wellness programs have longed focused largely on physical wellbeing, so they offer health checks, fitness classes, nutrition, massage and team bonding. Few look at mental health, although mental health problems are experienced by a huge number of people.

According to the Australian Psychological Society, 26 per cent of Australians report having “moderate to extremely severe depression symptoms”.
Metlife Australia’s 2016 Employee Benefits Trends study showed the top three concerns employees had were related to mental health: work-life balance, depression and anxiety, and stress. “Only a small proportion of employers recognise work-life balance, depression and stress as important health issues for staff,” the report found.

According to AMP’s Financial Wellness Report, based on interviews with 2000 employees in 2016, 24 per cent of employees feel financially stressed. While there is no suggestion personal finance issues create mental health issues for everyone, there is undoubtedly a correlation.

While some new generation wellness programs branch into stress testing, yoga and meditation as a way of combating stress, few acknowledge the importance of improving mental health or drill down to examine the leading causes of stress for workers.

The Australian Psychological Society’s 2015 Stress and wellbeing report, which came from online interviews with 1731 Australians, found : “[Personal] financial issues are rated as the top cause of stress over the five years, while also of concern is the increase in the number of people turning to gambling to manage stress (now one in five).”

Furthermore, the report concluded: “31% of employees say they have taken unexpected time off to deal with a financial issue and 41% admit being distracted at work because of financial worries.” The study surveyed 300 managers and 500 fulltime employees.

One of the report’s four calls to action was “Win minds and hearts by encouraging emotional and financial wellness.”

The 10 biggest barriers to peace of mind in 2017

Call it what you will, peace of mind, inner peace, sanity, contentment – that feeling of freedom from when your brain just won’t shut up and in bad moments you feel only marginally less negative about the world and others than you do about yourself.

In a world full of fear about war, your job, paying the rent, the planet, relationships, walking home late at night, whether your kids are safe, the next interest rate rise or that secret we pray never sees the light of day, most of would rather spend time with a sustained, quiet satisfaction than on a speedboat with champagne and celebrities. It’s a different feeling from ‘happiness’ – though most of want that too.
Continue reading “The 10 biggest barriers to peace of mind in 2017”

Mindfulness could complement CBT interventions for depression

Anyone who has been truly depressed understands how vast the difference is between knowing it’s helpful to talk to people and regularly being able to connect with others.

Depression, and its nagging stablemate, anxiety, often render a person so exhausted and full of self-doubt that it feels impossible to escape the prison cell of their own thoughts.
Continue reading “Mindfulness could complement CBT interventions for depression”

What can be done to stop graduates arriving in their careers burdened by financial stress?

Financial stress is increasingly linked to depression and anxiety, then because of that, loss of productivity in the workplace.

Mindfulness is being embraced in the corporate sector as a wellbeing program response to heavy stress at work. Its advocates are optimistic, but even if it’s as effective as hoped, there is no doubt it is a solution to symptoms of other problems.

As the wellbeing microscope begins to sharpen its focus on exactly what stresses us at work, it seems inevitable that the effects of a universal form of debt for the next generation of corporate leaders – student loans –will come in for scrutiny.

In other words, could the collective stress burden of student debt – government-funded and private – be considered an avoidable cost by business?

Today Australian degrees cost between A$20,000 and A$40,000, but by 2026 the cost of the average three year degree in Australia will have swollen to over $A50,000; four year degrees, especially those from prestigious universities in high demand subjects would costs substantially more.

Zookal found 21 per cent of students are worried about how they will pay back their debt, while 22 per cent are already stressed about non-tuition costs, like textbooks. Those numbers sound worrying but are low compared to debt-related stress among tertiary students in the United States.

In the Princeton Review’s College Hopes and Worries Survey, 98 percent of student and parents said they were experiencing some level of anxiety, with more than 70 percent of them pegging it as “high” or “very high.” Since 2014 the largest single stress factor was debt.

Where the stress really bites in is in the worry over repaying a student debt when it comes time to work and juggle other costs and debts: according to Universities Australia, repaying a law degree could take up to 25 years, while a three-year degree could take 14 years to repay, according to Business Insider.
According to Metlife’s 2016 Employee Benefit Trends Study, nearly a third of Australian employees took time off to deal with a financial issue and 41 per cent were distracted from their work due to money worries.

People in the salary bracket $A50,000 to $A74,999 are the second-most financially-stressed, behind those who earn under $50,000, AMP’s 2016 report, Financial Wellness in the Workplace, said. Also, women are more likely like to be financially-stressed than men.

Certainly as long as there is a cost of for tertiary education payment – and for most people studying in Australia repayment is a fact of life. In Australia a fortunate 10 per cent of student have their fees paid for by their parents, but according to textbook rental company Zookal, 80 per cent of students only begin repaying their student debt once they have begun their career.

The current threshold at which graduates must begin to repay their loans (at four per cent per pay packet) is A$54,869, roughly the median starting salary for an under-25 Australian resident bachelor’s degree graduate in 2015. There is pressure to lower that threshold to A$42,000 in order to manage a projected blow-out in Government’s student loan scheme, HECS-HELP.
A law graduate could expect $55,000, a computer science grad $54,000, while an economics or accounting, psychology or veterinarian studies major both faced $50,000. Overall, male graduate starting salaries were $55,000 and females were $53,000.

At present $1.9 billion is never repaid (because students fail to reach the repayment income threshold or move overseas) which is expected to grow to $4 billion by 2026.

A HECS-HELP loan is subject to a negligible interest rate – the Consumer Price Index – and only applied on debts older than 11 months. The rate is currently 1.5 per cent but it has been as high as 3 per cent in 2011.

With the size of student loans growing, the threshold for repayment dropping and work intensification showing no sign of slowing, it’s easy to see where this is headed. Graduates look set to arrive in their careers burdened by financial stress, the single biggest cause of stress for Australians and Americans.

The cost of huge and complex Government student loan systems, as well as inequity, have been acknowledged in a move to free tertiary education by several European countries in recent years. Sweden, Norway and Denmark offer free education – countries that perhaps coincidentally – are all among the 10 happiest countries on earth in many happiness studies.

Things are beginning to shift in the United States, where the student debt crisis is worse. This week, the New York State government rolled out its ground-breaking Excelsior Scholarship program which promises free tertiary tuition for anyone from a family with a combined income of US$100,000. That income test will rise to US$125,000 in 2019.

Tennessee, Oregon, and Minnesota already provide free tuition for institutions with two-year programs, while according to NBC, a dozen other states have pending legislation which would do the same.

American Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders made free tertiary tuition part of his campaign platform – albeit on equity grounds. According to Jeffrey D. Sachs, who edited the chapter, Restoring American Happiness, in the 2017 World Happiness Report, student debt in the US is US$1 trillion and only 36 per cent of people complete a degree.

Perhaps more mindful policymaking as regards the impacts of high education costs and the crippling stress that causes might see a change in direction that would benefit employees and employers alike.

Send yourself a valuable gift: get mindful

Why do we spend money to feel good now, even if it’s clearly going to have negative consequences later? And why do we seem to make better decisions if they are planned and not impulsive?

The answers are complex, but just so you really get the idea, first imagine yourself under a lot of stress. Maybe you are working and studying, so you’re always flat-out busy, and there’s no end in sight. Or perhaps one of your parents is gravely ill and it’s hard to communicate about this with siblings you don’t get on with.

So you should feel really stressed.

Then without thinking, say which of these following suggestions sounds like a great idea a/ now, or b / in five years time: buying two pairs of the same fancy shoes you like because they are on sale, or selling your car today for $500 less than you could probably get because a buyer is ready with the cash and you want a weekend away.

You probably favour option a/ in most cases, meaning you want the ‘reward’ now.

Why? Because, according to behavioural scientists, “present rewards are weighted more heavily than future ones. Once rewards are very distant in time, they cease to be valuable,” so says behaivoraleconomics.com.
This was the finding of landmark research done in 2002 by Shane Frederick, George Loewenstein and Ted O’Donohue, and published in the Journal of Economic Literature.

Interestingly, when the reward is delayed, we are more prepared to wait to receive a greater reward. Research shows if given the choice between $100 in a year or $120 in 13 months, we will probably wait.

All this suggests if we plan for the future we are likely to make better decisions about money.  But it depends what that future event is, and how far off it is.
If it’s a skiing holiday in the Canadian Rockies, we will probably swing into action. If it’s retirement at age 70 (as the Australian Federal Government proposes from 2035), that feels somewhat less urgent, even though few would argue it’s more important.

In a 2014 report on savings, the Reserve Bank of Australia showed “younger households place more weight on saving for large purchases and emergencies to smooth near-term consumption rather than saving for longer-term (retirement) consumption.”

“Keys to managing decisions like these are to make those far-off outcomes feel closer,” Peter Sokol-Hessner, assistant professor in the department of psychology at University of Denver, told The Huffington Post.

He suggested “to imagine how you’ll feel when you can use those retirement funds, how grateful you’ll be that your younger self sent this gift into the future.”

If that sounds like a fairy story, there is research to back up the idea that we are more careful as ‘our future selves’. A study run by UCLA Anderson School of Management in 2011 found when people visualised themselves as 70 and were asked to imagine what they’d do with a $1000 windfall, they put more than twice as much money towards their retirement as those who were asked to visualise themselves now. They were more likely to choose short-term options like planning an extravagant outing or buying someone a gift.
So where does mindfulness come in?

Let’s be clear: a mindfulness practice, even one focused on money, isn’t going to directly impact your Canadian Rockies ski fund, let alone your retirement savings.

But if undertaken consistently, a mindfulness practice could help change the decisions you currently unconsciously make about spending.
For instance, you may decide to do extra research before selling your car or home, looking more carefully at trends and brainstorming other ways to find ready cash.

It does that by increasing time between your thoughts: that well-worn but accurate metaphor of busy thoughts as clouds against a blue sky that represents an untroubled mind.

“Thoughts are like clouds,” says Financial Mindfulness’s Chief Mindfulness Officer Tomas Jajesnica.

“When you can see more sky and less clouds you start to move out of an immediate, involuntary response state and towards the type of thought where you could think about your ‘future self’.”

A big benefit of a regular practice is a buffer against the power of marketing, he says. Think about the hype involved around the release of the next stage of a sought-after apartment development: it’s in the interests of a real estate agent to get you into a feeding frenzy state with other potential buyers, so the stage sells put, the project can go up and the next stage goes into marketing overdrive.

“But it’s not just effective in dealing with real estate,” Jajesnica says.
“A lot of marketing works on the idea of scarcity and urgency; some saying ‘quick, there’s only 100 in stock’ , or ‘hurry, it’s a brand new order’, or whatever. Marketing works on you by getting you to make a decision right now.

“A mindfulness process will help you to buy things rather than just be sold to.
“It’ll allow you to come from your own space, consider the consequences of your actions and respond by making decisions, rather than be manipulated by marketing.”

Will mindfulness help humans stay relevant in the age of robots?

While we gaze in awe at the videos of amazing robots coming out of labs worldwide on increasingly smart smartphones, sceptics and academics are meanwhile busy wrestling with the real value of mindfulness.

But a leading British expert has made a huge claim linking the two.
“Mindfulness may come to be seen as the core 21st century capacity, because it concerns our only competitive advantage over the machines: awareness itself,” wrote Jamie Bristow, director of the Mindfulness Initiative in the United Kingdom. The Initiative is an institute that lobbies politicians to include matters “of the heart and mind” in their policy decisions worldwide.

That’s right. We may actually have an edge over machines.
We have known for decades that machines have the potential to outperform humans in almost all areas of life. The lead-up to that point includes the coming automation of jobs humans do now; according to Business Insider UK, one third of all jobs “will be replaced by software, robots and smart machines by 2025.”

“Artificial intelligence and robots are not just challenging blue-collar jobs; they are starting to take over white-collar professions as well. Financial and sports reporters, online marketers, surgeons, anesthesiologists, and financial analysts are already,” wrote Business Insider’s Kathleen Elkins.

The ‘technological singularity’ is the name given usually given to the point at which artificial superintelligence sees machines transcend human beings. Most experts in the area believe this will happen before 2045, although Google’s director of engineering, Ray Kurzweil thinks machines will match human intelligence by 2029.

Writing for Mindful.org, Jamie Bristow pointed out that some of the world’s thought leaders are looking past the inevitable explosion in AI and asking how our innate humanity can solve problems robotics cannot.

One of the key issues put forward at the 2017 World Government Summit in Dubai was that “We need to develop 21st century job skills that cannot be replaced by robots and AI, which means exploring and cultivating what makes us uniquely human.”

Bristow alluded to the fact that aspects of many jobs, such as being listened to by a GP, carry value beyond a machine’s capacity.

Another key idea proposed at that summit, by Professor Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum, was “new, human-centered thinking—considering happiness, wellbeing, purpose and meaning” in policy-making. Human happiness was also consistently near the top of the agenda, especially with mass unemployment a big possibility due to automation.

“It goes without saying that anything that we can do on autopilot, robots and AI will soon do better,” Bristow wrote.

Because of what it allows our minds to do, mindfulness could well hold the key to our remaining relevant – as long as humans exist anyway.

“Mindfulness practice is about more than just attention training. It’s also largely about developing kind curiosity towards inner experience, and provides a framework for deep inquiry into the psychological mechanisms of distress and wellbeing,” Bristow wrote.

In other words, when we observe thoughts without judgement we can see past our own insecurities and find it easier to empathise with others.
“This heightened empathy arises in part through the development of body awareness—as it turns out, the more we are grounded in the body and know stillness, the more we can feel moved,” wrote Bristow.

Psychologists who utilize mindfulness in their work might well add guilt and healthy shame to a empathy on a list of things machines could mimic but would find it very difficult to do beat us at. Could a machine that malfunctioned and injured its owner slow its output and produce extra reporting until it had regained trust?

Could a machine ever really comfort a crying child, let alone bond with a newborn?

“Far from just another fad, perhaps the mindfulness craze is the start of a macro trend towards putting self-awareness and contemplative practice at the centre of human endeavour. Let’s hope so.”

It’s hard to argue with that – unless you are a very, very (very) smart phone capable of understanding this on your own.

Why isn’t mindfulness working for me?

Mindfulness, in theory, sounds great. The deal seems to be roughly this: if I sit still and listen to my breathing for 10 minutes each day I will be calmer, certainly cooler, possibly richer and definitely an all-round better person.

So how come it’s not working, you might ask, because you probably feel like none of those things after a few days doing mindfulness meditations.

However, that starting point of using mindfulness meditation to find self-improvement is, apparently, backwards.

“Meditation practice isn’t about trying to throw ourselves away and become something better, it’s about befriending who we are,” the world famous American meditation teacher and author Pema Chodron said.

Chodron was a stressed-out schoolteacher called Deirdre Blomfield-Brown until she was crippled by depression following the end of her second marriage in the 1970s. So how does she, one of the world’s foremost experts do it?

“You just sit down with yourself,” Chodron told Oprah in a 2008 interview.
“It’s a way of being completely open to whatever is happening in your mind, and you realize your mind is wild and crazy and all over the place. The instruction is so simple: Just keep coming back to your breath. Then you say,

“This is almost impossible!”

“It isn’t, but I know how hard it is.”

Initially it will be hard, so like anything, practice makes perfect.
In general terms, if we feel like quitting after a few days we are expecting too much too soon.

“You might call it beginner’s uncomfortability,” says Marc Richardson, psychologist with Financial Mindfulness.

“I tried to learn the guitar literally every time I picked it up I would sweat because I was so uncomfortable. Trying anything new is uncomfortable and to experience full benefits one would need to engage for quite a while.”

Are there strategies, though, for dealing with the specific problems if they persist? Some of the most common include: I’m thinking too much, I can’t do this, I can’t sit still, I don’t have time, it hurts.

Here’s what British mindfulness expert Shamash Alidina wrote about some of these problems in Meditation for Dummies.

I can’t do this:

“When people say this, they normally mean they can’t focus … mindfulness meditation is one of the best ways to develop that focus! It’s completely normal for your mind to wander off when you’re meditating. However, as soon as you’ve noticed, bring your focus back to the object of attention specified in the meditation (often your breath). Each time … you’re training your mind to be more focused in the future. Remember, you can’t fail at meditation. As long as you try, you’ve succeeded.”

I can’t sit still:

“Some meditations require you to be … still for half an hour, but many don’t require this. You [can do a] body scan meditation lying down. And mindful yoga, walking or tai chi is meditation in movement. [A] three-minute mindfulness exercise is a great practice to do daily.”

I don’t have the time:

“If some of the busiest people in the world can find time to stop and meditate, even if it’s only five minutes, you probably can too. You can do mindfulness meditation at any time. You can wash the dishes mindfully, you can walk your dog mindfully or you can even have a mindful shower. So that takes no time at all out of your busy day.”

What about ‘It hurts’?
Tara Healey and Jonathan Roberts, writing for mindful.org are clear on this: “Being in a lot of pain is not a mark of doing it right. It can take some work, though, to find a position (or a few positions) that don’t lead to intense pain … try out different postures and supports … a hugely important lesson of meditation is that even comfort is, well, bound to eventually become uncomfortable.

“For this reason, once you find a suitable posture and support, it’s a good idea to avoid making too many adjustments.”

Getting fully into the meditation itself can help: “People have found that as they relax that inner tension, it often results in less bodily tension.”

As for I’m thinking too much, well that one is addressed by realising practice makes perfect. You accept the thoughts you have without judgement, and gently set them aside. Thoughts are normal and they will come and go, hence the widely-used analogy of allowing thoughts to pass like clouds against a blue sky.

The more you meditate, Chodron told Oprah, “the more you have a lightness about what’s occurring in your life … it’s not about becoming indifferent to life’s experiences; it actually allows you to be much more present with whatever arises.

“You’re fully engaged, but you see it from a different perspective.”
In other words, you will be able to cope much better with what life throws at you.