How employers can provide impactful financial wellbeing programs: Insights from the Employee Financial Wellbeing Conference

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“Why should we offer a financial wellbeing program? What’s in it for us?”

For most large employers, that’s how the conversation started only a few years ago. It’s since evolved. We’re no longer talking about whether these efforts matter or if there’s a business case. In fact, employers acknowledge the answer is measurable. For some, the costs of inaction can be alarming. So, what is the bottom line cost of financial stress? According to one wealth strategies executive at a large health care organization, it nears $180 million.

It’s time to ask a new question: “How can we get down to the business of helping our employees?”

More employers are joining in the discussion, based on the 150+ attendees representing Fortune 500 and similarly-sized companies at the Employee Financial Wellbeing Conference, held by the Conference Board in late November. A few years ago the attendee list included only a few dozen curious companies. But that’s not the case anymore.

Organizations are devoting far more attention to the financial wellbeing of their employees. And HR job titles that extend beyond traditional program management are emerging to include specific responsibility for financial wellness, employee wellbeing and the like.

Employers are talking; that much is clear. Here are some takeaways from the conference that might surprise you:

This is our responsibility, and employees are looking to us for help

Employers continue to grapple with how to balance the fine line between offering employees meaningful financial wellbeing programs and infringing on an area where some may feel they are unwelcome. But progress is being made, as employees who participated in Willis Towers Watson’s 2017/2018 Global Benefits Attitudes Survey reported wanting their employers to provide personalized solutions to support their specific financial needs.

Meanwhile, employees report less appetite for personalized messages. It goes back to behavioral economics: “I’d like some relevant help on my terms that makes it easy, but I don’t want to be judged or nagged.”

Employees are struggling, and their needs are all over the map

Retirement planning still has its place as a cornerstone of the financial wellbeing discussion, but it hardly starts or ends there. Employers admit the issue is far more complex.

You have skilled, early career employees coming in with crippling student debt, mid-career employees facing the tension between preparing their children for college while planning for their own financial future and late-career employees tasked with caring for aging parents as they look to exit the traditional workforce. The needs around debt, spending, wealth accumulation, and income and asset protection are real, complex and highly variable from person to person.

At the same time, some employees can’t shoulder their current bills

Half of U.S. households are living paycheck to paycheck and nearly 40% could not come up with $2,000 if an emergency arose, according to the Willis Towers Watson’s 2017/2018 Global Benefits Attitudes Survey. Melissa Gopnik, senior vice president at Commonwealth, cautions that it goes back to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: If employees don’t feel financially safe — that is, if they lack the financial resilience to weather a missed paycheck or two — then we need to address that issue first.

We have to do better

No two employees are alike. Julie Gebauer, Human Capital and Benefits leader for Willis Towers Watson said it best: “It’s not that employees don’t know what to do. It’s that, for some,the options available to them aren’t meeting their needs.”

So, how can employers make an impact? Here are two insights.

Bring employees what they need, instead of what HR needs them to have

For one pharmaceutical employer, this means “changing the equation, so employees no longer have to choose between their past and their future.” Their perspective? Lead, don’t follow. Through a first-of-its-kind private letter ruling, they are offering 401(k) matching contributions in return for student loan repayment. It’s an innovative twist that encourages financial health now and early saving for later.

While their plan structure laid the foundation for the move, their enthusiasm for entering this uncharted territory with something unique is noteworthy. The payoff? Employees are not only pleased with the program but also have an increased sense of pride in where they work. And the “mileage” they are getting in talent recruitment will likely continue to pay dividends for the company.

Ask employees what they need

More often than not, organizations that are gaining traction have this in common: They ask employees what they need. The methods range from conducting employee focus groups, to engaging employee resource groups, to leveraging pulse surveys. Companies that are pushing ahead are hearing from their people rather than gambling on the next move.

This much is clear: As the labor market tightens, employers are looking to offer integrated wellbeing programs, including financial wellbeing programs that attract and retain the talent they need to thrive and grow. Companies that aren’t already making inroads may be wondering, “What do we stand to lose if we do nothing or fail to get this right?” Looking to pioneering programs and employee research can prevent them from having to find out.


 

Karolyn Karl head shotKarolyn Karl is Director of Communication and Change Management at Willis Towers Watson.

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