When I started in business 32 years ago, any notion of corporate wellness programs would have been applied strictly to executives, and typically it would have involved no more than a club membership. It was also a time when everyone dreamed of retiring in their 40s and 50s, perhaps with a company retirement plan to support them in a new phase of life filled with rest and recreation.
Eventually, corporate employers warmed up to the notion that they should also concentrate on the physical well-being of their employees, offering smoking cessation plans, health club memberships, afternoon stretch time and granola bars in the break room vending machines. But still, in the battle to improve employees’ concentration and job performance, the focus of corporate efforts was on improving their health, not on expanding their financial understanding.
That started to change when the tech bubble burst in the mid-1990s, and even more so when the housing market crumbled in 2008, with retirement plans and savings accounts all caught in the collateral damage. And, for some inexplicable reason, while earnings and savings and retirement plans were in a devastating free-fall, colleges were still increasing tuitions. As a result, employees’ long-range plans seemed more at-risk. Manufacturing and service workers, as well as accountants trying to balance the company books, were growing more distracted on the job, not by a few extra pounds or the need to step out for a smoke, but by worrying about how to pay their mortgage, or the next credit card installment, and whether or not they are going to have to work until 75 or 80 just to make ends meet.
A report by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau revealed that since the 2008 recession, many employers have come to realize that financial distress reduces worker productivity, increases absenteeism, and threatens employees’ health. And, according to an Aon Hewitt survey of more than 2,800 workers and their dependents, an individual’s financial situation is the most commonly cited stress factor, and 51% of workers surveyed said that stress caused them to be less productive at work.
Financially stressed workers aren’t good for businesses, and in some cases even raise employer health care costs. Employees worrying about their own finances sometimes cannot give the necessary attention to their work, which may set the stage for potential injuries on the job and increased workers’ compensation costs. So, it is good that employers have begun to implement various approaches to enhance employees’ financial well-being.
A recent Bank of America Merrill Lynch report indicated that over 90% of large employers plan to implement or expand some type of financial wellness program. This is a promising sign for both employees and companies because workplace financial wellness programs give employees access to financial education and guidance, increase employee morale, and have been shown to improve employee financial well being while also reducing stress levels. Employers have an interest in promoting financial wellness because financial wellness is also linked to higher worker productivity, reduced absenteeism on the job, and reduced health care costs. In fact, workplace financial education programs have a high return on investment for corporations that implement them, with some estimates indicating up to a 3-1 return on investment.
The numbers tell the story. For many companies health-care costs run as high as $500,000, but many employers don’t seem to mind because they see the tangible results: slimmer waistlines and fewer people congregating outside the back door smoking. On the other hand a financial wellness plan might cost only $5,000-10,000 per year, and also promote the same ROI. But, it can only be effective if it’s implemented correctly.
Let’s start by acknowledging that different people have different levels of financial stress. If you’re a baby boomer, the idea of retiring comfortably before your 70th birthday may be among your primary goals, so you’ll want to work for a company with a strong retirement plan in place. If you’re a Gen X baby, then it’s all about how much little Sarah, still in the cradle, is going to have to pay in tuition at Harvard in about 18 years, so a company’s payroll savings plan is critical. And, if you’re a millennium baby, then your greatest concern might only be which new app to download on your smartphone. But, this group cannot be ignored, because even they may want to retire someday or send their child to college.
Having a work-based financial plan is one thing, but implementing it successfully can be a challenge. First, just handing your employee a URL, user name, and password so they can set up their own plan will be a waste of time because nobody has that much free time at the end of a work day. In order for this to work you need a financial wellness coach, someone on-site who can clearly and succinctly spell out what’s being offered and what its benefits are, both to the employee and the employer. There are no “one size fits all” approaches to a financial wellness program. An on-site coach can tailor a program to a certain group of employees to ensure the highest levels of participation. A particular program can focus on areas like retirement accounts, income tax planning, identity theft, education funding, estate planning, debt analysis, and Social Security and Medicare strategies, among others.
It’s also important to point out that even if some employees seem uninterested at the beginning, they may reconsider as they approach certain common life events. Just as a 20-year high school class reunion may make us appreciate workplace wellness plan as we try to shed some extra pounds, a major event like a wedding, the death of a parent, or college visits can increase employees’ interest in financial wellness. Employers need to realize that just because people don’t get on board immediately doesn’t mean they won’t sign on in time, as their needs dictate.
Although we are living amid a sustained economic recovery, it’s unrealistic to think that this alone will reverse a growing retirement-savings deficiency. Therefore, employers will need to continue to help their employees to become more financially healthy. This can be accomplished only by offering them the proper tools, meaning a program for effective financial planning, one that invites maximum employee participation. Only by giving employees the financial peace of mind they need will employers begin to gain the rewards of financial wellness, which will include lower turnover, lower health-care costs due to reduced financial stress affecting a personal health, and lower absenteeism. It will address everyone’s present and future needs.
Alex P. Kline, CFP is senior vice president, Retirement Plan Division, Duncan Financial Group. He has been recognized by Financial Times as one of the top retirement advisors in the U.S. Contact him at 412-238-7331, or [email protected].