Meet the entrepreneur taking on the financial wellbeing taboo

Wellbeing in the workplace continues to be a hot topic for businesses – but is anyone paying attention to one of the single biggest stressors affecting the majority of employees? We spoke with Mutaz Qubbaj, Squirrel founder and CEO, to find out how his start-up is tackling the issue of financial wellbeing head on...

According to the data, our personal finances are stressing us out more than ever before. Over the last four years the NHS has seen a 43 per cent rise in antidepressant use – an increase that some experts say is likely to be a result of mounting financial pressures.

"The financial strain on many people has never been worse. They are worried about their spiralling bills and where the next meal is coming from. It can make you feel very down, and it soon becomes a cycle," says Emer O’Neill, chief executive of Depression Alliance UK.

Naturally these kind of worries can make it difficult for employees to concentrate on their work, with stressed and unhappy staff negatively impacting the performance of a business. Therefore by providing financial support, in terms of education and tools to help get an employee’s finances in order, businesses can boost their productivity levels.

Mutaz Qubbaj decided to disregard taboos around dealing with personal finances at the workplace when he founded Squirrel in 2013, recognising the critical need for a tool that would help empower employees. In doing so, he quit a decade long career in investment banking – a decision that took him back to his tech roots.

With a degree in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from MIT, he says he was "ready and raring to embrace the life of an entrepreneur" after finishing his studies, until he was offered a position in investment banking. With roles at Morgan Stanley, Credit Suisse and PIMCO under his belt, he explains that after 13 years working across sales, marketing and strategy, the time came for him to make a change.

"I decided to take the plunge into truly embracing my desire to build something that could make a difference."

Qubbaj was inspired to make a difference after seeing advertisements tailored towards pay day loans. With all of his career experience, he believed there must be a better option.  

Read: How much does technology mess with your wellbeing?

"Squirrel is the culmination of thousands of conversations that all started with a common thread – 'what keeps you up at night about your finances?' It was the realisation that people weren’t looking for an easy way to score cheap credit. They were looking for a way to get comfortable with their money."

So how does Qubbaj’s idea work? He describes Squirrel as a "financial wellbeing platform", a tool designed to help people take control of their finances. Currently he is offering Squirrel as a benefit that any company can provide to their employees.

"At its core, Squirrel gives people their own simple bank account, into which their pay is diverted so that they can manage their bills, set aside savings automatically and break down their spending money into manageable weekly amounts. We’re all about making people better with their money.

"It’s a pretty simple solution. It can be deployed in any business looking to empower their employees financially while doing more than just providing credit alternatives or financial education to their employees."

Squirrel has already managed to raise more than £1m through grants and funding from the UK government agency, Innovator UK, and other initiatives. But are others embracing his values?

"We already have 15 businesses on board including O2, Agilisys and London City Airport. They're loving it as a way to truly invest in their greatest asset – their employees. Employers are on the lookout for solutions to drive employee engagement, and Squirrel fits the bill whilst effectively addressing the potential for lower productivity, higher absenteeism and higher staff turnover, that comes with any form of financial stress."

Squirrel appears to have come at the right time. In a study undertaken by Barclays in 2014, where 2,000 UK employees across a range of sectors were interviewed, they discovered that 46 per cent of employees worried about their finances. More than one in ten of the employees felt they were financially 'slipping' – struggling to get through the month on what they earned, and turning to forms of borrowing. So what does Qubbaj see as the next steps?

"The vision for Squirrel is to become the go-to financial hub for people across the UK in the context of both their essentials and saving goals. We’ve already helped people manage close to £1m of payroll even before they’ve had access to it, and the effect we’re having on people’s lives, financially and personally, has been amazing to see.

"We’ve built, and will continue to develop an engaging solution that addresses the core financial needs of the more than 25 million employees in the UK making less than £30k a year. We want to empower them to achieve their financial goals in as simple a manner as possible, and we truly believe Squirrel is the key!"

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