Financial Wellness Has a Real Dollar Value

Show your clients the value of tackling employees’ money woes.

Workplace surveys routinely find more than half of employees worry about money issues on the job; it stands to reason some of them work for your plan sponsor clients.

A large majority of workers believe offering financial wellness is the employer’s job, and many admit that money problems have distracted them at work. Clearly, it’s not just employees who stand to gain from instruction on personal finance. Last year, a survey of human resource (HR) professionals commissioned by the Society for Human Resource Management found 85% of employers believe financial stress leads to decreased productivity.

The findings are common. Workplace financial wellness program provider Financial Finesse recently reported that 85% of employees feel at least some level of financial stress, and Pew research finds at least four in 10 employees suffer angst over an approaching retirement, usually because they have not saved enough.

“Financial stress has an overwhelmingly negative impact on employees, and it’s something that affects almost all workers of all levels of income at some point in their career,” says Jennifer Benz, CEO and founder of Jennifer Benz Communications. Her firm provides support to employers on health benefit and financial security communication programs.

Travis Freeman, president of Four Seasons Financial Education, agrees. He feels financial wellness is “the next phase of a trend that started about 15 years ago.”

“It began with a focus on improving physical health in the work force,” he explains. “Then mental health was added. Then employers started to realize other issues people faced were causing ailments—anxiety, sleep loss and depression are often related to money.”

While he knows of no one vendor that offers help with all three dimensions of physical, mental and financial health, programs should cover all for employees to gain a powerful benefit, he says.

NEXT: Calling in ‘niche vendors’

Companies of any size can serve up financial wellness training, but experts agree: A one-shot presentation is far from enough. “You can’t just do a lunch and learn and call it quits,” Freeman says.

Each well-thought-out program will be different, tailored to a company’s unique employee base and needs, says Benz. A small to midsize firm may be able to create the program in-house or with help from a freelance communications expert or small marketing firm, then kick it off at a common meeting. These could be staffed by “niche vendors,” invited to discuss their specialty such as debt consolidation or credit counseling.

The campaign may incorporate programs already in place at the company but underused, she says. Large employers, on the other hand, may have their go-to communications firm spearhead an original financial check-up campaign directed at thousands.

“What’s important to keep in mind with financial wellness is there’s not one way to tackle this,” Benz says. “This isn’t like health benefits or the 401(k). Financial wellness is a much broader topic, centered on trying to get people to take positive action in all aspects of their financial life. The programs will look radically different at one employer than another.”

A good tool to aid sponsors in envisioning their financial wellness strategy is “6 Steps to Bring Financial Wellness to the Workplace.” Benz’ firm, together with State Street Global Advisors, just published the white paper, which lays out the financial wellness implementation process, from defining what financial wellness means for an organization to choosing the type of solution or tool best-suited for a firm’s challenges.

NEXT: Where to start 

When developing any education for a work force, the best place to start is with the workers themselves. The plan sponsor could hold focus groups or perform a simple survey, but a wealth of information can be gleaned from salary and health plan data, and from 401(k) use, Benz says. “Really dig into what’s happening with their benefits,” she says. That combined feedback and information should help pinpoint the cause of employees’ distress.

The adviser can determine where to jump into the process. You may, for example, already have materials on financial wellness that you can supply. The plan provider may, too, says Sean Ciemiewicz, a financial consultant and a principal at Retirement Benefits Group (RBG). “Most providers are doing a great job of providing the material for the plan sponsor to use,” he says. Some companies, such as Schwab or Fidelity, that offer their own educational programs, will work in tandem with the plan sponsor, he says, when the programs are complementary.

One valuable role is in helping the sponsor focus. According to Benz, targeting employee needs with just a few specific actions or programs at a time is best. “Move the needle in that area, and then reassess, rather than trying to tackle everything employees might possibly need help with at once,” she says.

A manageable beginning is to hold a workshop—what Ciemiewicz’ firm often does. He collaborates with the plan sponsor, entering the process at the data-gathering stage. “It helps us to determine the best course of action,” he says. Workshops are customized based on employee profile and industry. He, too, finds surveys invaluable when building a program. “These tell us what is most important to the employees and their biggest concerns.”

NEXT: How to make an impact

Whatever the subject, Ciemiewicz stresses the importance of presentation—and here he doesn’t mean impressive materials. Talk about investing and mutual funds can put people to sleep, he says. The emphasis is on “personal,” not “finance.” “And make it fun—if you don’t, the information goes over people’s heads in a hurry.”

Freeman, too, advises keeping the presentation lively—especially vital with PowerPoint webinars.

After a financial wellness education session, follow up is crucial. The goal is to change behavior, and this takes ongoing effort, from the employee, the plan sponsor and the adviser, as well. Freeman’s firm recommends some form of educational outreach every three to six months. Still, he says, “education isn’t hard for plan sponsors or plan advisers—the hard part is getting employees to use the education to make meaningful changes.” They also need guidance and accountability throughout the year. “It doesn’t stop. It is annual and ongoing,” he says.

Ciemiewicz concurs. From his background in marketing, he knows inertia is hard to beat. “It takes a good six or seven times to start getting something to have an impact or get someone to take a look at something,” he says. “We can help a company with that, but they can do it on their own, too, where they are regularly providing little snippets of information.” The company can periodically send out emails or single-sheet newsletters, discussing different financial wellness topics. “As long as it just catches their attention, it’s going to continue to keep it top of mind,” he says.

Making one-on-one counseling available rounds out the wellness program. As an adviser, you are free to educate and motivate. “Talking about financial concepts is on the education side,” he notes. Especially important is to help the employee identify bad financial habits and formulate goals, then monitor his progress over time.

Counseling can be in person, by phone or even the Web. Four Seasons’ CFPs “meet” with individual employees in a dedicated office where a computer with Internet and a webcam make the connection.