• By Check-a-Salary
  • Posted Tuesday 21 st January 2020

Does the amount you earn directly affect your mental health?

So, you know someone who earns the big bucks.  They have it all – a big house, a nice car, several foreign holidays every year, a wardrobe full of designer clothes.  Someone like this must have an easy, stress-free life – right?

Well you would certainly think so wouldn’t you!  But the reality is that it’s not as simple as that.  Mental health can be affected by a multitude of things and the shocking reality is, mental health problems will affect 1 in 3 of us in our lifetime and what is clear, is that there isn’t a ‘typical’ profile of someone who will suffer mental health problems due to work – people at all points on the pay scale are affected by mental health issues.

There is most certainly however, a direct correlation between high amounts of debt and high levels of stress and anxiety.  In addition, being on a low income leaves you with no room for error with your money as every penny is accounted for, in order to pay essentials such as household bill, transport costs and childcare costs.  This all leads to a feeling of being stuck and trapped in an existence, which in turn affects mental health.

However, anxiety about money can affect anyone and such anxiety can lead to stress, can affect mood, sleep patterns and eating habits and have a vast impact on relationships.  All of these are important factors in mental health, regardless of your salary.

Thankfully mental health in the workplace has, over the last few years, become much less of a taboo subject and many companies are now acknowledging the importance of having a range of strategies in place to help their employees to combat stress in the workplace.  It is now not only ok, but actively encouraged, for employees to discuss their mental health at work.

In January 2017, then Prime Minister Teresa May, commissioned an Independent Review of Mental Health and Employers in order to understand how employers could better support all individuals currently in employment, to remain in, and thrive, through work.

As part of a supporting study for this Review, Deloitte looked at the cost of mental health to employees, the return on investment to employers from mental health interventions in the workplace and what can be learnt from international examples in terms of good practice.  In their study, Deloitte estimated that poor mental health costs UK employers £33bn - £42bn each year and they discovered that across industries, the highest per-employee annual costs of mental health are in the finance, insurance and real estate industry and in public sector health.

The Deloitte study is a detailed piece of work, as one would expect, examining many aspects of mental health in the workplace and drawing on examples from other countries in relation to mental health and wellbeing.  Yet, I feel that this is just the tip of the iceberg.  Many people don’t work for large corporations which have wellbeing coaches, quiet zones, mental health at work seminars and HR departments with specialists trained in stress and mental wellbeing.  Millions of people work for small companies without access to these facilities.  Millions work long hours doing jobs that nobody else wants, for minimum pay or for cash in hand.  Millions are unemployed.  Nobody is monitoring their mental health or giving them strategies for dealing with stress in the workplace.  They don’t have the option to take time off from work to deal with mental illness, for fear of losing their job or because they don’t get sick pay.  I therefore think it is impossible to put a figure on the numbers experiencing poor mental health. 

What the study does suggest to me is that, whilst a high-flying, well-paid job might contribute to your stress and thus poor mental health, having that higher salary also gives you much more access to help and strategies for your mental health problems.

And yet, just last week I was chatting to the guy who had delivered my grocery shopping.  Turns out he used to be a ‘high flyer’ in the city but he said the job made him so stressed and allowed him such little time to see his family and pursue any hobbies, that he left and is currently delivering groceries while he works out ‘what he wants to do next’.  He said that driving around allows him the headspace to think about all sorts of things – whether it’s thinking about climate change or just what to have for dinner that evening, he now has time rather than rushing from place to place and feeling permanently mentally exhausted. The irony for lots of people who, on paper, have it all (great job, big house, nice holidays, new car, private school fees – whatever it is you aspire to have) is that either they are too physically or mentally exhausted to properly enjoy the trappings of their success or that their jobs are so stressful that they are actually making them mentally ill.

Backing this up, Lloyds Banking Group boss, Antonio Horta-Osorio, has recently stated that firms that ignore mental health issues risk ‘breaking employees’ lives and families’.  As reported by BBC Business Editor Simon Jack, in the year 2011, with financial institutions still suffering the effects of the financial crisis, Horta-Osorio said “I was very mindful that the bank was in a very weak position to face adversity.  It was a problem that going around my mind constantly, which led me to sleep less and less.  And the less and less sleep progressively led me to exhaustion, and then to not sleeping at all which was a form of torture, so I had to address it and I did”.

Horta-Osorio was fortunate to have the full support of the board when he took eight weeks off to recover from this.  Again, being in a (very!) well paid job, which of course caused the stress, also enabled him to take a step back, seek help and then return to his job in better mental health. 

Another example of this is my daughter’s teacher.  She studied Economics at university and steadily worked her way up until she had a very good job, her dream job in fact, working for a large corporate bank.  She had spent years working towards this dream and, whilst the job did indeed bring her an extremely healthy salary, private gym membership and healthcare and occasional travel for work, the reality was that in fact, she found that she was unfulfilled and mentally exhausted.  She felt guilty that she was earning so much money – money which, ironically, she found she had less and less inclination to spend as she had become depressed.

So, she went against everyone’s advice, and re-trained as a teacher.  She now teaches primary school children, has immense job satisfaction and feels that she is making a huge difference to the lives of the children she teaches.  She can no longer afford to buy expensive designer clothes or have luxury holidays as her salary is a fraction of what it once was, but day to day, her life is better.  Ultimately, she is much happier and her new career and the lower salary that comes with it, has contributed to her improved mental health.

Of course, this lady was in a very privileged position – she earnt good money and was able to make the decision that she could adjust her lifestyle to accommodate earning much less. The vast majority of people aren’t in such an enviable position and for many people, every pound they earn is accounted for.  Making a decision to change careers and potentially alter their salary, for the sake of their mental health, just isn’t an option for most - according to a Living Wage Foundation survey, more than 3 out of 5 of those questioned said they worried so much about money that it affected their day to day life. 

Where do the self-employed come into this?  The Office of National Statistics has just said that the number of self-employed has passed 5million for the first time and self-employment is growing strongly.  Is that because people feel their mental health and stress levels will be better if they work for themselves?  Or because they feel that they will be able to maintain a better work/life balance if they are their own boss?  Maybe working from home is an attractive prospect if you have suffered mental stress in the past or suffer from social anxiety?

Clearly, mental health in the workplace is a massive issue.  It’s reassuring to know that lots is being done to identify those employees who need help and provide them with the right tools to improve their mental health.  However, at the same time there are millions of workers out there who aren’t able to access the vital mental health support they need.  If mental health support isn’t something offered at your place of work, your GP or your local Citizens Advice Bureau are good starting points to get the specific help you need.  Mental health issues can affect anyone, at any time and removing the stigma of mental health is perhaps the most important thing to have changed in the world of employment for many years.  Perhaps what we should all take away from this is the importance of acknowledging the need to look after our mental health – regardless of our salary.


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