Employers tackle low participation rates in financial stability programs

Register now

The financial stability of U.S. employees slid backwards for the first time since the Great Recession, according to a survey of employees by Willis Towers Watson.

Only 35% of workers surveyed say they are satisfied with their financial situation this year, a sharp drop from 48% two years ago.

The 2017 Global Benefits Attitudes Survey is a biennial survey that gauges how workers around the world are feeling financially. It found that more than one-third of U.S. workers believe their current financial concerns are negatively affecting their lives, compared with just 21% two years ago; and 59% worry about their future finances. In 2015 that figure was just under half at 49%.

Savings is on the decline and debt levels are on the rise, says Vincent Antonelli, a senior consultant in Willis Towers Watson’s New York City office. Rising housing costs are another major financial concern of most employees.

One interesting thing about the survey is that it “connects the dots between employees who are financially struggling and the impact it has on job performance,” he says.

Willis Towers Watson pays close attention to a group of survey respondents who are struggling financially. It finds that there is a correlation between employees that have financial worries and those who report poor physical health, are not highly engaged at work, are absent from work frequently and are more likely to work past age 70.

“This has implications for employers’ healthcare costs and succession planning,” he says.

Willis Towers Watson helps its clients design, implement and measure how well financial stability programs are working. One of the things the company has noticed is that when they look back on financial initiatives that have been in place for a while, there are fairly low participation and engagement levels.

To combat those low levels, plan sponsors need to do a better job of finding out what different groups are searching for when it comes to financial stability. That could mean differentiating between generations, like millennials vs. baby boomers, or seeing how different genders approach the topic.

“To get engaged, you have to personalize messaging and programming around where people are in their life,” Antonelli says. “A millennial may or may not be dealing with student loan debt and rising home costs. Someone mid-career is looking to build wealth and send their kids to college. Financial wellness means something different to them.”

Those who are further along in their careers are balancing retirement planning with eldercare.

Plan sponsors need to take an approach that is “very nuanced to where people are in their particular life stage or career. We’ve learned those lessons on the physical wellness side of the house. Not everyone engages in a wellbeing program the same way and you need different interventions and modalities to reach the broadest segment of your population,” he adds.

There are many similarities between how companies have approached employees about healthcare and how they can now approach them about financial stability, but there are some things that still need work.

On the healthcare side, companies worked to build trust with employees and get their permission to talk to them about healthcare initiatives. The same hasn’t been done with financial worries.

“On the physical wellness side there’s this openness to talk about this stuff. They have group challenges to lose weight or get the most steps. We don’t do that on the financial wellness side yet. No one’s walking around the office talking about how they lowered their debt or how close they are to having an emergency fund, and the other interesting thing about the health side is it takes a long time to develop poor health behaviors. We have a bit more runway on this,” Antonelli says.

On the financial stability side, poor financial decisions can have immediate catastrophic effects. People get married, have children, get over their head on their mortgage or lose their job. All of these events can impact a person financially.

He points out that there are 300 new healthcare startups every day but there aren’t as many looking at financial health. He says that plan sponsors struggling to determine the right financial fitness program for their employees should focus on programs that are independent, meaning they aren’t trying to sell a product.

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, click here.
Retirement planning Retirement benefits Retirement income Retirement readiness Financial wellness