Worry While You Work

Professor Jirs Meuris’ research shows that employees’ financial problems have an impact on job performance

assistant professor of management and human resources Jirs Meuris

Talking to the media about research should be one of the fun parts of a professor’s job. But when Jirs Meuris takes a reporter’s call, it’s a bit of a double-edged sword.

The assistant professor of management and human resources studies how work and employment shape people’s finances, and if someone wants a comment from him, it often means something bad is happening to workers. That was precisely the case during the federal government shutdown in December 2018 and January 2019 that kept approximately 800,000 employees from being paid.

Meuris’ research looks into how financial insecurity affects people on the job. While many federal employees worked in key positions without a paycheck, Meuris offered insights to public radio’s Marketplace, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and other media about how that might have had an impact on the job they were doing.

Financial worries carry over to on-the-job performance, Meuris found in his research. He had data from a trucking company to prove it, finding a connection between drivers’ money concerns and their rate of preventable accidents. He found the same results when he recreated those conditions with study subjects who navigated a driving simulator he built himself, steering wheel and all.

WSB: Why is this finding important for employers as well as employees?

Jirs Meuris: If you have people who are worried about their finances, it’s going to take away their ability to be productive and to perform. I like to think of this as a metaphorical backpack. Employees don’t take this backpack off when they step into the workplace. It’s on their shoulders, weighing them down as they try to work. From an employer’s perspective, they should care about this. There is a cost to it.

WSB: Why did you pursue this research?

JM: I read other research about how when people experience scarcity they lose cognitive ability. I thought, “Well, that’s not the whole story.” At the same time, I was having some personal circumstances that put me in pretty bad financial shape because throughout my whole PhD, I was basically living off debt. My research was motivated by introspection, things I was seeing in myself. Then I realized this was something that wasn’t being talked about. Employers discussed topics like personal finance. They would say things like, “We should really care about people” as a matter of morals or values, and that’s great but I also argue that there’s a strong economic argument for it.

When people are worried about their finances, it takes away their ability to be productive and to perform.

Jirs Meuris,
Assistant Professor of Management and Human Resources

WSB: What can employers do besides just pay people more?

JM: Companies have started financial wellness programs and some have done it very effectively. They should also think about medical insurance and the deductible. You can have the best medical insurance in the world, but if you have to pay half of the costs, that’s not much of a safety net. There are indirect costs, too, like child care. An employer can take away many of people’s anxieties, and companies that provide security and stability can gain value.

WSB: It’s probably hard for people to talk about their financial troubles at work.

JM: Whenever I go to a company and talk about financial insecurity, the go-to comment for people is always about the guy who buys a new truck and shouldn’t. That’s just irresponsible decision-making. Real financial insecurity is when something unexpected happens that shakes you a little, and then something else happens, and it all piles on. You get into a cycle, and if you don’t have savings and a strong safety net, it’s very hard to get out of that cycle. We don’t want to tell our colleagues that we are struggling. We have this view that financial problems are caused by bad decision-making, and people don’t want to be seen in that way, which often increases the effect of financial concerns on our performance.

WSB: Where will you go next with this research?

JM: A lot of my current work is looking at employees’ complete economic context and its effect on organizations—about living paycheck to paycheck or seeing if there is a connection between financial insecurity and unethical behavior. I’m also looking at compensation among police officers and their productivity in terms of clearing crimes through arrest. There is a financial insecurity element to that field, because if you think about why people work off-duty or overtime, it’s often because of the money that comes with it. I want to keep pursuing this research and hopefully have some impact on changing policies or practices. To me, that’s the measuring stick for all the effort I’m putting in—can I make a difference? Then I’ll know I’ve succeeded in what I’m doing.

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Tim Hotchandani (BBA ’04)

was recently named one of the Wisconsin Alumni Association’s Forward under 40. Hotchandani counsels companies through Rothschild & Co., one of the world’s largest financial advisory firms. His Wall Street career has also included roles at Deutsche Bank, Lehman Brothers, and Thomas Weisel Partners. Hotchandani stays involved with the School by mentoring students in the Investment Banking Club, an organization he co-founded during his time at WSB.More Class Notes »

Mark Burns (BBA ’09)

joined fellow UW–Madison alums at The Onion after graduation and later became a producer at The Second City comedy theater. The unique combination of these three institutions has sculpted his strange, dynamic skill set. He has now started his own company, Punch Up Creative, which uses its comedic expertise to help corporate clients tell their stories in a more entertaining fashion.More Class Notes »

Catherine Quinlan (BBA ’13)

was named a 2018 Rising Young Professional by the Minneapolis business publication Finance and Commerce. Nominated by her peers, Quinlan, a commercial banker at BMO Harris Bank, was among a small group of Twin Cities professionals chosen to receive the award that recognizes the honorees’ professional achievements and their community involvement and contributions. More Class Notes »