Crippled by debt and struggling to make ends meet is a fair way to describe life for thousands of South Africans right now; consumer debt is now sitting at a staggering R1.5 trillion, according to the latest data from Experian South Africa.
The fact that South Africans have a debt problem is nothing new. But it’s an increasing cause for concern as the situation has, and continues to be, exacerbated by a combination of slow economic growth, job losses, reduced salary scales and delayed Temporary Employer/Employee Relief Scheme (Ters) payments due to Covid-19.
Beyond the threat that debt poses to our financial security, it also takes an enormous toll on our mental well-being. Debt can trigger anxiety and depression, and induce feelings of hopelessness, desperation and defeat. In fact, a recent survey by policy institute Money and Mental Health found that 50% of people who are in debt suffer from poor mental health, making them vulnerable to further money-related stress. In addition, the South African Depression and Anxiety Group reports that 46% of South Africans are experiencing some form of financial stress and pressure since lockdown.
Normalising our expectations around how our money can work better for us, in the long and the short term, is key to reducing debt and managing our mental health. But money is an emotionally charged subject, whether we have it in abundance or constantly struggle to make ends meet. Money is all about numbers, so there’s an expectation that our related behaviours are rational. But that’s seldom true. Money is tied to our greatest dreams and deepest fears, making it a loaded, sensitive topic that can easily negatively affect our mental health.
In the first instance, we need to acknowledge our own thoughts and feelings about money as this has a profound, often almost subconscious impact on our attitudes and expectations towards it. This, in turn, informs our associated feelings. Secondly, we need to consider sensible ways in which to meet our needs, without falling into a debt trap that eats away at our financial security and contributes to feelings of stress, anxiety, depression, and worse.
Rejecting debt outright is ideal, but often not viable.
“We’ve all had to resort to using credit when the washing machine gives up the ghost, or the stove is on its last legs. In situations like these, it is useful to consider alternatives to credit that are less expensive, more flexible, and which enable us to meet our short-term needs without incurring the burden of debt,” suggests Aimee Miller, Sales, marketing and customer experience manager at Teljoy, South Africa’s foremost rent-to-own provider.
Beyond how debt and financial stress makes us feel, it has a tangible effect on our ability to function optimally. Over-indebted employees struggling to meet their financial obligations are unlikely to be optimally productive. The global pandemic has resulted in considerable financial strain on most households, which has in turn ratcheted up anxiety and stress. Now, more than ever, companies are – and should be – seeking ways to help improve the financial well-being of their staff – not only for their own bottom line, but because they have an ethical obligation to do so.
“There are several options available for employees trying to stay afloat during the month, from unsecured loans to early access payday solutions. But for companies wanting to help employees make the best decision for their long-term financial well-being, it’s critical to consider options that don’t encourage additional debt,” Tamir Sacks, chief executive of PayCurve, points out.
Echoing concerns about the impact of stress on work productivity, he adds that employees who are over-indebted are more likely to have to take time off work for treatment, or simply to do the necessary admin to tackle their financial issues.
“It is important that employees are able to handle their daily finances, and meet the demands of an unexpected expense, without getting themselves deeper into debt,” Sacks says.
According to a 2019 study by Tyme Bank, 57% of South Africans run out of cash by the 15th of the month, and only 24% have enough money to get them through to the next payday. And that was pre-Covid-19.
“There are three factors to consider when it comes to financial well-being – an employee’s financial situation, their financial skill, and their financial literacy. If you can use a platform that addresses all three, the chance of an employee being unable to fulfil their contractual obligations because of debt-related stress, is significantly lower,” says Sacks.
And, he adds, “in the current challenging economic environment, a company that is able to provide its staff with a holistic financial wellness solution that incorporates these factors, will undoubtedly have a competitive advantage as an employer.”