Why M&S wants to break the taboos around financial wellbeing
The retailer is working with charity partner the Fashion & Textile Children’s Trust to support employees, encouraging them to reach out for help in a bid to normalise conversations about financial distress.
While everyone is on a journey with their wellbeing, financial health remains one of the last taboo subjects. Very few people are prepared to discuss their finances or debt levels with their colleagues, even if the strain they feel makes it hard to cope at work and at home.
Marks & Spencer is on a mission to remove the stigma and support employees facing financial distress. While internally the retailer has focused on financial support for the past decade, health and wellbeing manager Beth Rochford recognises financial wellbeing is a new subject for many organisations.
She notes that while understanding of mental health has risen up the agenda since the onset of Covid, discussions about money issues still lag behind. Understanding that anyone, regardless of their position or status, can struggle financially is a good starting point.
“Employing 65,000 colleagues, there’s going to be all sorts of different positions people are in financially. It’s not only people who are on a low income. It can be relative to wherever you are in the organisation as things can come your way that you’re not expecting, which suddenly put you in a position where your financial wellbeing is vulnerable,” says Rochford.
“The double stigma that you don’t talk about it at work does have an impact on your mental wellbeing.”
In order to normalise conversations about money, M&S gives financial wellbeing equal weighting alongside physical and mental wellbeing in its conversations with employees. To this end, the retailer staged a Healthy Finances Week for its workers last month.
The first objective of the week was to launch the company’s new financial wellbeing hub with partner Salary Finance, offering voluntary benefits linked to their salaries to help employees manage their debt.
Secondly, there was a push around pensions and the launch of an app with pension provider Legal & General to make it easier for employees to make decisions about their savings.
Even if you’ve got really great pay and benefits benchmarked in the industry, financial hardship and emergencies don’t discriminate.
Beth Rochford, Marks & Spencer
The third critical message was to amplify M&S’s partnership with the Fashion & Textile Children’s Trust (FTCT), a charity that supports the children of employees in the fashion and textile industries.
FTCT steps in to meet the urgent needs of workers in financial distress, from buying school uniforms, to providing new mattresses and bedding for children, or even fridges so the family does not need to go hungry. Crucially, the parent does not need to repay the grant.
The charity, which has an eight-year relationship with M&S and receives donations from key business partners, supports all workers in the fashion and textile industries regardless of whether their employer donates.
During Healthy Finances Week, M&S worked with FTCT CEO Anna Pangbourne to create content bringing the charity’s work to life. There was a dedicated blog, where an M&S employee shared her experience of working with the Trust and the support she received. Retail director Sacha Berenji, the executive sponsor for wellbeing, also went out across the business with a message promoting the FTCT partnership.
The blog content and accompanying video interview with Pangbourne were viewed 1,400 times, sparking 80 enquiries to the charity from M&S employees in the space of 24 hours.
The FTCT CEO praises the longevity of the partnership with the high street retailer, offering support employees can rely on well into the future. She explains the havoc the Covid crisis has wrought on the retail landscape over the past 18 months has given the charity an even greater understanding of the scale of financial distress.
Speaking to parents across the fashion and textile industries, Pangbourne has been concerned by the level of debt in families, which in some cases exceeds £15,000. The end of the furlough scheme next month looks set to cause even greater hardship.
Yet, despite the pressure they are under many employees present at work as if they are totally fine.
“It’s two parallel universes. What’s happening at home is not brought into the workplace and we know why, it’s because people don’t want to talk about their finances. There’s that embarrassment, pride. Nobody wants to contact a charity to say they need help, but what we really try to do is break down those barriers to say: ‘It’s ok, you are not alone’,” says Pangbourne.
“Sometimes a parent might say ‘I must be the only one who’s not able to buy a school uniform for my child or the only parent who hasn’t got any spare cash to buy a washing machine’. It’s about trying to convey to that parent that we help hundreds of families a year, you are not alone in this. We are here to help and we are not here to judge.”
While the FTCT knows it cannot fix all financial issues, if it can alleviate some of the stress by furnishing a parent with school uniforms for their children, the family can then put any spare money they have towards utility bills or a weekly food shop.
A ‘cushion’ of support
There is a two-stage application process to access support from FTCT. In the first instance, parents are encouraged to make a query via the charity’s website, outlining their home situation, how many children they have and who their employer is. The applicant is then sent a more detailed form, which they return via email. The charity also takes regular calls from parents looking for more information.
“If they’ve not heard of us it’s a big step to call a charity they’ve never heard of before that gives money they don’t have to pay back. We have had it in the past where people say: ‘What’s the catch?’ There genuinely is no catch, but it is about reassuring people, answering their initial questions and encouraging them to make an application,” says Pangbourne. “Taking that first step is the biggest one and we recognise that.”
From an M&S perspective, the business does not see a distinction between home and work life, understanding that often employees are juggling not only their job but the challenges of being a parent or carer. In some senses, the pandemic has made these conversations possible.
It’s two parallel universes. What’s happening at home is not brought into the workplace and we know why, it’s because people don’t want to talk about their finances.
Anna Pangbourne, FTCT
“Covid has helped a little bit as a leveller, because the plight of this group of people has been in the media and how they’re trying to deal with all sorts of multi-faceted problems,” says Rochford.
“We’ve got a family and carers network in M&S led by colleagues and they’re doing a lot to be honest about the good and bad in terms of looking after people, but there’s lots of ways we can really amplify the message that everybody is in different boats but in the same sea.”
She explains that while working with FTCT is not an employer branding exercise for M&S, offering enhanced support does help both attract and retain talent. Furthermore, Rochford sees no conflict in publicising the retailer’s relationship with the charity.
“Is there a conflict of message that we’re trying to pay our people a good wage with a good package of support and then actually, why aren’t we able to help them in these financial difficulties? The answer to that is the recognition that even if you’ve got really great pay and benefits benchmarked in the industry, which is absolutely competitive at M&S, financial hardship and emergencies don’t discriminate,” she says.
“There will still be a need for support from charities like FTCT however great your offering is and we don’t think it sends a negative message.”
Pangbourne describes the charity as having an open door and the ambition to work with as many businesses in the fashion and textile industries as possible, ideally in a similar way to how M&S has embraced the partnership. She believes working with FTCT is a positive reflection on the company, a sign that it cares for its employees both in the workplace and outside working hours.
“For M&S and many other companies their responsibility is largely in the workplace, so by bringing in other charities there’s that whole cushion of support around the employee. We love working with M&S and we want to work with more companies as well,” Pangbourne adds.
“It’s such a positive halo in terms of the company working with us, because it shows it’s not just saying ‘We care for employees’, it’s living and breathing those values.”