Life is full of stressors: work, family, finance, economic, political, lifestyle, and social to name a few. While mild stress levels can motivate us to perform better, higher levels of stress can impact us on both a cognitive and physiological level [1].

Our brains are sensitive to high-impact stimuli, or even continuous low-impact stimuli. In extreme cases, excessive stress can contribute to the development of neurodegenerative diseases, anxiety, depression, substance use, and suicidal ideation.

In the workplace, the impact of stress can be seen in memory deficits, poorer performance, behavioural changes, and physical illnesses, like influenza, migraines or cardiovascular risks [2]. This can have a butterfly effect on the company, eventually affecting the company’s finances or security.

High levels of stress are strongly correlated with increased sick leave taken by employees [3]. A study by Occupational Care of South Africa (OCSA) and Statistics South Africa (StatsSA) established that the economic cost of employee absenteeism could be as high as R16 billion per annum. In short, employee stress is costing your business money [4].

In large companies, it’s difficult to track the wellbeing of individual employees and the effect they have on your bottom line. That said, creating an infrastructure and company culture that supports employee wellness will go a long way to helping a large percentage of struggling employees.

From a psychological perspective, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs states that healthy individuals have certain physiological and psychological needs [5].

Figure 1: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

The workplace can have a profound effect on all levels of needs. It’s unfortunate, but much of the world’s population ‘work to live’.

Poor remuneration can affect an employee’s means to maintain their health, afford appropriate accommodation, or have a family. If these basic needs aren’t met, according to Maslow’s theory, the employee will find it difficult to satisfy the needs relating to ego and self-actualisation. They are dependent on their salaries to meet the most basic needs and often need to find additional means of finance.

Without cash to spare, employees often turn to credit to supplement their lifestyles or to buy goods that are not within their means – i.e. luxury food or branded clothing. While credit can have many benefits, the temptation to spend more than you can afford is great. Additionally, from a psychological perspective, paying with a card has less of an emotional impact on the buyer than paying with cash does [6]. Thus, creating a debt cycle that is difficult to break.

According to statisticians at Compuscan, by the end of the third quarter of 2017, South Africa had 29,34 million credit-active consumers with an impaired credit record prevalence of 56% on all open accounts (including outdated accounts). At the end of this period, South African consumers owed R2,56 trillion in total [7].

Being in debt puts a large strain on an individual’s finances and consequently causes prolonged stress. Stress is the body’s evolutionary response to danger. Flight, fight, or freeze are regulated by the same neurological circuits that regulate stress brought on by finances, family, etc. On a neurophysiological level, any stress activates the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis which ultimately ends with the release of cortisol [8]. While acute cortisol release is helpful in the short-term, it is detrimental when the body releases cortisol over a longer period; as in the case of prolonged stress. This, in turn, impacts the brain, immune system and other body functions.

The Diagnostic and Statistics Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) lists fatigue and diminished concentration as part of the diagnostic criteria for Major Depressive Disorder and Generalized Anxiety Disorder [9]. Energy, concentration, and motivation are integral to function in the workplace.

Similarly, these symptoms are often seen in those suffering from influenza, migraines, or other physiological illnesses.

The direct impact these symptoms have on a company are reduced productivity and poor performance. Employees struggling with fatigue and concentration are a risk to the companies for which they work. The financial impact aside, the protection of information is not only vital, but is a legal requirement.

Technology provides many benefits to the modern world, but equally aids criminals who are looking to exploit others, especially those working in companies dealing with finances and information.

Employees that are suffering from attention deficits, lack of energy, and demotivation underperform, and are less likely to identify potential fraudulent threats or attacks. Protecting a company’s interests is each employee’s responsibility; if they aren’t doing that, they aren’t doing their job. Not only is your business losing money due to surplus absenteeism and decreased productivity, but there is the potential threat of being the target of fraudulent activities, including, but not limited to, information leaks, being held digitally hostage (ransomware), or financial accounts being compromised.

To ameliorate this situation, the most obvious solution is to pay employees more, however in our fluctuating economy, this isn’t always possible. A lower-cost, and significantly effective method of improving employee productivity related to financial stress, is financial counselling and education [10].

There are several ways companies can do this:

  1. Understanding your employee:
    Using smart data and analytics, companies can form a holistic picture of their employees’ financial wellness. The application of variables, algorithms, and models to analyse the indebtedness of employees can provide valuable insights into how their finances are affecting their health and your business.
  2. Financial Counselling:
    Contact a financial advisor who is willing to come discuss financial planning, debt management, and other general financial topics with your employees. Paying a financial professional for a few hours every quarter is a lot cheaper than increasing salaries.
  3. Financial education:
    There are many workshops, online courses, and training available to companies wanting to improve the financial knowledge of their employees. Education further empowers employees through accomplishment and self-development.
  4. Stress management:
    Knowing how to manage stress through meditation and relaxation has proven to be effective, simple to action, and the least expensive when considering alternatives like cognitive behavioural interventions [11].

To address these issues, Compuscan ran their Employee Wellness Analysis on their employees. Using the results, they could get a comprehensive view of the company’s employees and their wellness status. The analysis looked at variables relating to age, income, debt to income ratio, types of debt, balances, and defaults, to name a few. The report generated also returned results on each department, as well as the individual employees. These results are also benchmarked against the industry for comparison. Compuscan uses this information to guide their internal training initiatives and provide financial education support to their employees. To further encourage financial wellness, employees get their full credit reports and regular access to a financial advisor.

Stress is a silent enemy and can easily and significantly disrupt the workplace. In the information industry, this has severe financial and security repercussions. While impossible to ensure the complete wellness of employees, company boards can take into consideration the level of employee needs, their financial status, and their stress management abilities.

Ultimately, finding a balance between paying your staff the right salary, engaging in employee needs, and keeping your company’s bottom-line in consideration is the best mutually beneficial option. Take advantage of what data, analytics, and technology can offer your company in achieving this goal.


The information, including but not limited to, text, graphics, images and other material contained in this article are for informational purposes only. The purpose of this article is to promote broad understanding and knowledge of stress and employee wellness. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical or psychological advice, diagnosis or treatment.


[1]      Esch T, Stefano GB, Fricchione GL, Benson H: The role of stress in neurodegenerative diseases and mental disorders. Neuro Endocrinol Lett, 2002; 23: 199–208


[3]      Moreau, M. (2004). Occupational stress and incidence of sick leave in the Belgian workforce: the Belstress study. Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, 58(6), pp.507-516.



[6]      Raghubir, P. and Srivastava, J. (2008). Monopoly money: The effect of payment coupling and form on spending behavior. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 14(3), pp.213-225.

[7]      Compuscan. (2018, January 23). Credit-activity statistics 2017. Stellenbosch.

[8]      Tsigos, C. and Chrousos, G. (2002). Hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis, neuroendocrine factors and stress. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 53(4), pp.865-871.

[9]      American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.

[10]    JOO, S. and GRABLE, J. (2000). Improving Employee Productivity: The Role of Financial Counseling and Education. Journal of Employment Counseling, 37(1), pp.2-15.

[11]    Richardson, K. and Rothstein, H. (2008). Effects of occupational stress management intervention programs: A meta-analysis. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 13(1), pp.69-93.

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