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Mar 2, 2023 | by What Works Centre for Wellbeing

Wellbeing and debt in the UK

To explore how increased financial pressures are impacting the wellbeing of UK individuals, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) has looked at Opinions and Lifestyle Survey (OPN) data and Citizens Advice (CA) data, and spoken with experts from CA and Money Advice Trust.

This collaboration between ONS and charitable organisations models the value and power of civil society data. Here, we summarise the key insights from the analysis.


Key insights

  • UK adults borrowing more money or using more credit were twice as likely to report low happiness, and more likely to report high anxiety.
  • UK adults struggling to afford bills report lower wellbeing.
  • Cases of fuel debts have doubled in three years.
  • Older adults are more likely to have reduced their energy consumption in response to rising prices.
  • Using ONS and civil society data in combination enables a deeper dive into the personal finance domain of the national wellbeing framework. 

Borrowing and wellbeing

11.5 million people (22%) reported borrowing more money or using more credit between 25 January and 5 February 2023. This is a 5% increase from 17% in the same period last year, suggesting growing financial pressures.

Increased borrowing and use of credit were more common among:

  • renters
  • parents of dependent children
  • those living in the most deprived areas of the UK

Of those who reported increased borrowing, more than a fifth (22%) also reported low levels of happiness, based on analysis covering September 2022 to January 2023. In contrast, 11% of adults whose borrowing hasn’t increased report low happiness. 

Those who were borrowing more were also more likely to report a high anxiety score (45%) than those not using credit (31%).

Arrears and wellbeing

In January 2023, fuel debts were the most common type of debt Citizens Advice helped people with, dealing with almost 9,500 cases – double the number since January 2020.

People who reported being behind on energy bills between 14 September 2022 and 8 January 2023, reported lower wellbeing. This includes 28% reporting low life satisfaction, which is three times higher than those in a more stable financial situation (9%).

Half of adults in arrears (49%) also reported high levels of anxiety, compared with a third of those who were not behind (33%). According to previous ONS analysis from autumn 2022, people who are behind on energy bills have a higher likelihood of experiencing moderate-to-severe depressive symptoms.

To combat the rise in energy prices, many adults have actively reduced their energy usage over autumn and winter. This response varies by age: around 40% of adults aged 16-24 compared with 70% of adults aged 55 to 74. This may partially explain higher anxiety in older population groups.

Adults who found rent or mortgage payments “very difficult” to pay also had higher anxiety (51%) compared with people who found housing payments “very easy” to afford (29%).

The sustained effects of Covid-19

We know that the Covid-19 pandemic shifted the UK population anxiety higher on average and this effect has persisted. Increased financial pressures may be partly responsible for this continued trend.

The data: methods and measures

The ONS analysis integrates OPN data from September 2022 to January 2023, with data collected by Advice Citizens. It explores the financial situations of adults (aged 16 and over) in Great Britain broken down by wellbeing and loneliness.

To understand the impact of Covid-19 on life in the UK, the OPN became weekly from 20 March 2020. From 25 August 2021 it covered roughly fortnightly periods with an issued sample size of around 5,000 adults in each period to help ensure the survey remained sustainable. It covers topics such as cost of living and shortages of goods and collects the ONS4 wellbeing variables.

The Active Citizens are recorded by advisors working with clients who receive advice  with specific sources of debt. These data are only representative of people who receive help from the charity. They are monthly counts of the number of unique clients helped. 

Using these two kinds of data can help in understanding if fuel bills relate with debt issues. You can access the full Debt and well-being in Great Britain data set on the ONS website

What’s next?

Feeling educated about and in control of your money is a key driver of wellbeing. Employers are uniquely positioned to deliver financial guidance, particularly at transitional times through employees’ lives to support good financial wellbeing as part of a broader organisational wellbeing programme. This is mutually beneficial, as people who enjoy good financial wellbeing are more productive at work.

This is why we are scoping a review of employer interventions designed to support employees’ financial education and wellbeing. We are currently looking for co-funders for next financial year. If you are interested in working with us in this area, please get in touch.

To understand more about how your organisation can deliver stronger financial wellbeing outcomes for people across the UK, explore Money and Pensions Service‘s UK Financial Wellbeing Strategy and delivery plans.

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