As the effects of the recent financial crisis continue to spread across the globe, financial stress is an issue for both women and men. MetLife's 9th Annual Study of Employee Benefits Trends found that 58% of employers state that financial "illness" plays a role in employee absenteeism and 78% said that concerns over financial problems while at work can have a negative impact on employee productivity. And it has been estimated that 15% of workers are experiencing stress from their poor financial behaviors to the extent that it reduces their job productivity.

Employers are also in increasing numbers providing employees with the financial education they need, according to a new white paper released this week by MetLife. In coordination with the Boston College Center for Work & Family, MetLife examined how two large multinational firms have taken strategic measures to address the financial wellness of their employees.

"Financial wellness is a relatively new but growing concept, and there is an increasing recognition, across the globe, of the negative impact of financial distress on employee health and productivity," says Michael Malouf, senior vice president, global strategies and sales, MetLife.

The paper finds that financial difficulties can have a negative effect on worker productivity. There is evidence that financial distress may have a direct impact on employee health and well-being which can reduce worker productivity and increase absenteeism. One company surveyed and highlighted in the paper was American Express.

"In response to what we perceived as a need for employees to better manage their financial future, we instituted the Smart Saving program to provide them with financial education, as well as financial planning services that include one-on-one financial counseling sessions, at no cost to them," says Barbara Kontje, director, global retirement at American Express. "Since the launch of Smart Saving, there has been a 71% increase in calls to the financial planning counseling service and an 8% increase in 401(k) participation."

Carried out correctly, financial education can have a beneficial effect on employee wellness. Financial education programs have the potential to lower financial stress, reduce absenteeism, increase productivity and lead to a more loyal workforce.

Another employer with a highlighted best practice was EMC, which provides employees with personalized and action-based tools to understand their compensation and benefits.

"WealthLink was developed with an objective to increase our employees' financial acumen. We see it as an important tool to attract and retain the best employees and to keep EMC positioned as an employer of choice," says Kevin M. Close vice president, global compensation and benefits at EMC. "During the 2008- 2009 recession, we were gratified to see that among WealthLink users, there was no scale back in contribution to 401(k) programs, as compared to a 7% decrease among non-users."

Malouf highlights the following best practices from the study as considerations for employers when implementing a successful global financial wellness program.

- Set a target and measure the results. Think about what the company wants to achieve with a financial wellness program -- is it reduced employee stress, increased company loyalty, enhanced financial wellness or something else? Based on these desired outcomes, a formal assessment of the outcome of a program may be designed appropriately.

- Craft a message relevant for the target audience. Consumers vary in their financial needs and literacy depending on their life-stage and national culture, as well as their readiness to receive financial advice.

- Use creativity to gain participation. Lack of immediate gratification; lack of time, money or knowledge; or plain denial; all prevent consumers from improving their financial literacy. In light of these factors, making the issue more real for employees through creative communications and delivery channels may help.

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