The benefits team at Aetna periodically monitors calls to its retirement plan call center to ensure questions are being answered appropriately and that its employees are experiencing good customer service. It was during one of these sit-ins in 2007 that Carol Klusek, head of retirement and financial benefits, was struck by the sense of urgency among employees. Almost every call was some type of withdrawal call, which isn't unusual given that most transactions are conducted online, and employees really only need to call in for withdrawals. Still, Klusek sensed desperation in employees and vowed to do something about it.

"They all just seemed in crisis mode," she says. "They really had some [financial] problems."

Klusek's team started talking about what they could do to help employees. "If people are this stressed, they're not working very hard," she says. "They're worried about paying their bills."

Simultaneously, Aetna was taking steps to introduce physical wellness programs into the workplace. Once she had the support of senior management, Klusek partnered with her colleague on the health side to integrate the financial component into the overall wellness program. Her goal was to call attention to the fact that "financial wellness was a real thing and that it fit in with this physical wellness initiative we were beginning to build. The timing was perfect."

In early 2008, Klusek and her team rolled out a financial wellness program, on a limited budget, to offer Aetna's approximately 32,000 employees unlimited guidance so they could navigate the uncertain financial landscape while still saving and investing for retirement. Klusek's work in launching the program has earned her EBN's 2012 Benny Award for Benefits Leadership in Retirement.

"It was a slow evolution, because we didn't know what was going to work and what wasn't going to work," says Klusek.

At first, one of her biggest challenges was helping employees make that connection between financial stress and the effects it can have on physical health. Aetna hosted a kick-off event by inviting renowned financial expert, author and speaker Suze Orman, who spoke for an hour and a half in the auditorium at the company's headquarters in Hartford, Conn. Orman's talk was live-streamed across the country, and "we encouraged people to get into a conference room, to watch it as a team and to take advantage of it," says Klusek. "People loved it. She bonded with the employees, she understood our benefits; it was a fantastic kickoff."

Growing from a limited program within the wellness center at the company's headquarter., the financial wellness program is now a multichannel program available as a companywide benefit for all employees. Klusek and her team created a "Grow Your Money" campaign where, each month, employees would receive tips and tools on different aspects of financial planning. Topics included reducing debt, improving credit, setting up an emergency cash reserve, saving for retirement and estate planning.

Klusek recognized employees were very busy, with limited time to attend workshops, so she focused on creating a multimedia program of bite-sized education events, including podcasts, videos, tip sheets and games. All were designed to provide employees with quick and easy action items to improve their finances.

This multimedia approach also addresses the challenge that, for many employees, finances are intensely personal, and people might not feel comfortable attending a workshop in person. "We do more webcasts than we do in-person workshops," says Klusek. "Webcasts get much more attended. We are a very Web-savvy company, so employees are used to doing things on the Web, and it gives you the privacy."

She also worked tirelessly with various vendors to offer a robust program of personalized face-to-face financial guidance. "My team and our vendors are very aware we need to make use of every single dollar," says Klusek. "We made it very clear to our vendors that we need help with this."

The financial guidance component included one-on-one financial planning sessions with certified financial planners from Financial Finesse, financial planning sessions conducted by a retirement education specialist from ING and Aon Hewitt, a financial wellness assessment through Financial Finesse's online financial learning center, interactive webcasts and workshops, as well as a financial wellness website on Aetna's intranet with links to taped workshops for on-demand viewing.


Overall results

The program reached critical mass in 2011, with the majority of Aetna's employees accessing some aspect of the program. The company measured return on investment of the program from 2009 to 2010 (2011 results are still being calculated) by tracking attendance in the program and relating it back to retirement deferral rates, absenteeism and participation in flexible spending accounts. Results include:

* Deferral rates among heavy users of the financial wellness program were twice the average of nonusers, at more than 11% of salary. Moreover, financial education users had saved significantly more in their flexible spending accounts than nonusers.

* More than 90% of employees who attended a workshop or had a one-on-one consultation took at least one step to improve their finances after participating in the education, and 78% took at least two steps, including reviewing their retirement plan asset allocation, reducing monthly expense, reducing credit card debt and increasing 401(k) contributions.

* Ninety-nine percent of employees who used the services consider the financial wellness program an important benefit.

* Ninety-eight percent of employees who used the services say they are better prepared to make a financial decision, while 99% say they'd recommend the program to a co-worker.

"Since 2007 when this all started, we've continued to test and grow our programs to see what works and what doesn't," says Klusek. "Each year it's continued to get more robust."

Integrating financial wellness into Aetna's workplace culture is a long-term venture. "When we first rolled it out, people had the impression this was a short-term thing," remembers Klusek. "It took awhile. And our best advertisement has been word of mouth: Employees encouraging other employees to go. And that takes time."

Don't get discouraged or give up hope because of challenges experienced in the first or second year, she advises. "We're seeing that every year, it's becoming a more valued benefit by our employees," she says. "But it does take awhile. You didn't get into your financial problems overnight; you're certainly not going to solve them overnight."

Employees go out of their way to thank Klusek and her team for introducing the program, one employee even going so far as telling her he used to not answer his phone at work because he was afraid it was bill collectors. After participating in the financial wellness program, he doesn't do that anymore. "Those are things your boss will never know. It's productivity harm that you can't measure," says Klusek. "It's pretty encouraging that the people using it are getting value out of it."

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