This HR pro turns crisis situations into opportunities to support employee well-being

Tim O'Neil.
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In facing the coronavirus plague, employers have been forced to revamp their benefit offerings to help employees make important financial decisions and access resources to ease stress over their future.

Tim O'Neil, Employee Benefit News’ 2020 Editor’s Pick Benny Award winner, has been one of those architects of change, and charged with running the wellness program at Meredith since 2007. Financial wellness has always played a critical role in his approach to overall employee well-being, but the pandemic has made that support even more crucial.

“One thing that I've learned from COVID-19 is that we really need to think more about meeting employees where they're at,” O’Neil says. “That is in terms of how they can do their best work, how we can offer benefits that are valued and meet their everyday needs, and at the same time provide resources available to help them set and save for these middle and long-term goals.”

To help employees work remotely, Meredith has provided flexible work schedules and partnered with managers. The media company also added a 401(k) COVID-withdrawal provision to the 401(k) plan and modified flexible spending account policies to allow mid-year changes to employee contributions without a qualifying event.

Being able to support employees with their financial health during times of crisis has grown out of O’Neil’s approach during another time of financial upheaval: the 2007-2009 recession. O’Neil quickly pivoted to get employees invested in their 401(k) accounts while getting their other financial priorities in order.

Read more: How our 2020 Benny Award Winners managed employee benefits during COVID

When the media conglomerate launched its financial education program in 2010, it had 85% of employees participating in the 401(k) plan — today, 96% of employees participate. The program also helped employees reach more financial stability: in 2010, 40% of employees living paycheck to paycheck — a number that has now been almost cut in half to 22%.

“The mission of our wellness program at Meredith is to help employees and families live longer, happier and healthier lives, leading to an enjoyable retirement,” O’Neil says. “Having good financial well-being is a really critical part of that strategy.”

While the programs have seen great success, O’Neil understands how important it is to adapt and adjust Meredith’s company benefits. Every year, he confers with the senior leadership team to launch at least three new and significant programs that meet the needs of employees and their families.

“He's always striving to be the best and have the best-in-class portfolio for our employees,” says Mike Cormeny, director of supply chain management at Meredith, who’s helped initiate several new benefits at the company. “Sometimes it works within the budget parameters, sometimes it doesn't, but he's always pushing.”

See also: Why financial wellness can no longer be an afterthought

Education is also an important part of O’Neil’s work to improve the financial well-being of Meredith’s employees, and to help them understand what benefits are available to them. Each year, employees have the option to complete a personal financial wellness assessment to receive a free and confidential personalized "playbook" that highlights areas of strength and opportunities for improvement. They can also get a list of what Meredith financial wellness resources would be most helpful based on their personal situation.

“Employees can just learn more about how to develop a personal financial plan without someone trying to sell them something, which we think is very important,” O’Neil says.

The connection between financial education and workplace productivity and performance plays a role in the success of the company, O’Neil says. Addressing financial challenges like retirement savings or student loan repayments help employees bring their full selves to work.

“When you have employees that are financially stressed, and under distress, it's really hard for them to perform their best and really live their best life and do their best work,” O’Neil says.

See also: Are your employees financially resilient? A new quiz can help them find out

In the beginning of 2020, Meredith partnered with and Gradvisor, a digital financial wellness platform, to start an enhanced student loan platform and 529 college savings plan. The new benefits attracted more than 1,000 employees registering for the benefits within the first 60 days.

“Lots of employees are really struggling to buy a house, start a family or pay down debt because they are having the student loan burden,” O’Neil says. “So we really wanted to make programs and resources available that could help employees develop a personal plan or strategy, and help them understand things like when the right time to refinance is, what happens if they pay ahead, and how much interest they will save.”

O’Neil says that he’s as excited to come to work today as he was when he first started at Meredith 13 years ago. He proudly says the leadership has really given him a blank canvas to develop wellness benefit plans, and he aims to improve programs each year.

“Success for me is offering great programs for employees and their families,” he says. “For me, the future of benefits is about how to offer richer, robust benefits that allow employees to live their life and manage their family, but yet be able to still contribute to the organization in a very meaningful way.”

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