Employers tackle low participation rates in financial stability programs

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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%.

The finding has big implications for employers: Workers who struggle financially tend to have lower job performance and aren't engaged in their work, says Vincent Antonelli, a senior consultant in Willis Towers Watson’s New York City office. That's why more employers are coming up with solutions for the problem, including working to tackle low participation rates in financial stability programs.

To combat low levels of engagement and participation of these programs, 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.

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Retirement planning Retirement benefits Retirement income Retirement readiness Financial wellness