Extract from an article by Darragh O’Keeffe, ABC Health & Wellbeing – Refers to the work of Dr Dina Bowman & her team at the Brotherhood of St Laurence, Melbourne
It was a break-up with her partner four years ago that plunged Shari Rainbow into sudden financial dire straits.
“Within a month, I went from owning my own home and having a pretty successful small business to losing the lot and being left in debt,” says Ms Rainbow, who lives on the Gold Coast with her three children.
It did not take long for the huge financial stress to affect her health and wellbeing.
“I became a complete insomniac,” she says.
“I’ve probably managed three or four nights of proper sleep over the past four years.”
She lost a lot of weight and, perhaps most upsetting of all, she began to lose her hair.
“I remember going to my hairdresser, the same one I’ve been going to for years; she was washing my hair and these big clumps were just falling out,” Ms Rainbow says.
Even though she came from a large family and was close to her parents and four siblings, Ms Rainbow felt she could not ask for help; in fact, she became increasingly isolated.
“I backed into my own little hole, trying to pull away from everything I knew. It was nothing they did, I just felt like a loser. I felt ashamed.”
Money worries ‘top cause of stress’
Ms Rainbow’s experience is not unique. Research clearly shows an increasing number of Australians are living with immense money worries.
Finances regularly top our list of worries according to the annual Stress and wellbeing report by the Australian Psychological Society.
“Australians’ concerns about money have not abated. Financial issues are rated as the top cause of stress over the first years,” says the survey, which the APS published annually between 2010 and 2015.
Other research published late last year found 24 per cent of the 2,000 Australian employees surveyed were feeling financially stressed. This was across all industries, incomes levels and job roles.
“Employees who are financially stressed are less satisfied with their lives, less engaged with their employers and ultimately more likely to underperform at work,” the research commissioned by AMP found.
While the triggers of financial stress differ among individuals, the report identified five key themes: bad debt, home loans, retirement, supporting the family and budgeting.
Similarly, research by the Centre for Social Impact conducted for National Australia Bank found that two million Australians are experiencing severe or high financial stress, while a further 10 million are living with some level of financial worry.
That study found one in two Australians have limited to no savings, while one in six report they are just managing to make repayments on debt.
What’s more, those researching financial stress in Australia say the issue is getting worse.
In its most recent report Facing financial stress, Wesley Mission, a charity that provides financial counselling and financial literacy education programs, identified a growing number of people are living with financial hardship.
Wesley’s survey of 500 households in New South Wales found 44 per cent were facing financial stress, up 7 per cent from 2010.
The charity also found that 38 per cent of households were spending more than they earn.
Bad for our health
Most of this research has identified the physical and psychological toll that money concerns can take.
There are links with mental and physical health issues, family breakdown and substance abuse, and it can lead to social disengagement and isolation.
According to Dr Zoltán Sarnyai, head of the Laboratory of Psychiatric Neuroscience at James Cook University, as is the case with other types of stress it releases a cascade of powerful chemicals, such as adrenalin and cortisol, that increase our heartbeat but slow our immune system.
These biological responses evolved over millions of years and are beneficial in small doses as they help us survive immediate dangers, but they become counterproductive when stress is long-term.
“These chemicals are very powerful and need to be switched off once the threat is over, otherwise they do damage to the body and the brain,” says Associate Professor Sarnyai.
If stress becomes chronic, such as when someone suffers from constant financial pressures, the powerful stress chemicals constantly bombard our system and contribute to increased sensitivity to infections, weight gain, diabetes, anxiety and depression, he says.
For Dina Bowman, who has been talking to low-income households about how they manage financial uncertainty, health issues and financial stress are a “chicken and egg” problem.
“Often health concerns can trigger financial distress, say, if someone can no longer work because of an illness,” says Dr Bowman, principal research fellow in work and economic security at the Brotherhood of St Laurence.
“But financial worry can in turn trigger health concerns, as people unsurprisingly become distressed and anxious.”
Dr Bowman’s research examines how low- and moderate-income households, many of whom rely on casual work and volatile incomes, are coping with the stresses of financial uncertainty.
“Those with health issues often can’t address things that need attention. Dental care is a very common area, because people simply don’t have the money,” Dr Bowman says.
Understanding how we cope
For the past four months, her team has been conducting a fortnightly survey on the same 75 families to understand how they cope in difficult circumstances.
“Often the way people deal with it is to put it out of their minds; if they thought about the future it would be too distressing,” Dr Bowman says.
Many of the women in the families report they will forgo eating dinner so there is enough food for their children.
“They’ll pretend they’ve already eaten dinner, and often they’ll have tasks lined up for during dinner time to mask the fact that they’re not eating,” Dr Bowman says.
“Women also talk about not turning the heating on until their husbands and children come home, so again there is a level of self-sacrifice among women, many of whom take responsibility for money management.”
‘One step at a time’
What can often compound the burden of financial stress is a feeling of hopelessness. But experts are keen to get the message out: help is available.
Many people aren’t aware of the free financial counselling available and the assistance they can provide, says Dr Nicola Brackertz, who authored a report on support services for the Salvation Army.
“There’s a lack of understanding of what the service is and what it does; financial counsellors can be incredibly proactive,” she says.
“If you’re feeling stressed you’re probably not in a good frame of mind to negotiate with your utilities company but a financial counsellor can do that on your behalf.”
Financial stress credit card tease
Her report found 69 per cent of those who used the Salvation Army’s financial counselling felt more positive about the future as a result, while people generally felt it had helped their emotional and physical wellbeing.
“Across the board, 94 per cent said they would be willing to seek financial help earlier,” she says.
That is what happened to Ms Rainbow.
She got on top of her money worries by accessing free support services. She joined a savings program, which came from a partnership between several banks, community organisations and government funding.
The service provides individuals and families on low incomes with the skills to save and then matches their savings up to $500 towards education costs.
“It was baby steps,” Ms Rainbow says.
“I started off saving $10 a month, then I increased that and it grew from there. It helped me become conscious of how I spend every cent, not to waste anything and to think positively.”
The program connected her to the Salvation Army financial counselling service, which contacted her bank to secure a temporary freeze on her credit card interest, enabling her to eventually clear the debt.
“The key is to take one step at a time,” Rainbow says.
“It doesn’t happen overnight, but it does happen.”
SOURCE: O’Keefe, Darragh. “Financial Stress: We’re worrying ourselves sick over money.” ABC Health & Wellbeing, 10 February 2017
Financial stress: getting help
Financial Counselling Australia: the peak body for financial counsellors in Australia offers a free financial counselling phone line 1800 007 007 (9.30am-4.30pm Monday to Friday). Its website has an interactive map to find a face-to-face counsellor, and its consumer website has resources.
ASIC Money Smart: provides information on supporting friends or family experiencing money stresses, covering topics such as talking about money, working on a budget and finding the right support.
The Australian Psychological Society: has tips for managing stress, a booklet on understanding and managing stress and a link to find a psychologist if needed.