Why employees aren’t participating in financial wellness programs

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In America, broke is the new normal.

The average American now has about $38,000 in personal debt — up $1,000 from a year ago. It’s not surprising to see companies respond to this trend, with 84% of employers offering a financial wellness program as part of their benefits package, according to Fidelity.

However, there’s a problem. Despite the pressing financial woes of employees, financial wellness programs are seeing low engagement, with only 31% of employees participating in employer-sponsored financial wellness programs — a frustrating stat you may have observed at your own company. Clearly, there’s a disconnect between what employees want, and what employers actually offer.

Most financial wellness programs miss the mark for one key reason: They don’t address the biggest financial issue employees are struggling with: healthcare.

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Consider these statistics: As of 2017, healthcare costs are Americans’ No. 1 financial concern, outranking debt, college expenses, mortgages, rent, retirement savings, taxes and even unemployment, according to Gallup. When asked by PwC what will most help them achieve their financial goals, employees’ most common request was for lower healthcare costs — but only 12% say their employer-sponsored financial wellness program addressed this need. Meanwhile, one in five employees went so far as to say they would be willing to forgo a pay raise for better healthcare benefits instead.

Healthcare hasn’t historically been viewed as a financial wellness issue, but that’s a shift in mindset we need to make today. Because we’re now at a place where one medical bill can bankrupt your employee — where the average deductible is more than $4,000 for individuals and $8,000 for families and where even those who are insured face financial ruin face financial ruin. That’s why healthcare can no longer live as a separate entity from other aspects of financial health.

Here are a few things that employers can do to seal the gap in their financial wellness programs for next year.

1. Tackle the short-term financial problems first. When asked to define what financial wellness means to them, employees put more emphasis on resolving short-term financial concerns, according to PwC. While long-term initiatives like offering 401(k)s and retirement planning are helpful down the line, those benefits aren’t even going to cross an employee’s mind until their more urgent, everyday financial stresses are addressed first. 401(k) contribution rates naturally suffer when people need access to their cash well before retirement.

Healthcare is likely one of those short-term financial stressors, given it can be a high-cost service that employees utilize multiple times throughout the year. The unexpected out-of-network bill or expensive ER stay is a scar that doesn’t heal. So consider benefits that will help employees find cost-effective doctors and facilities, pay for their medical bills, and reduce their short-term healthcare costs.

2. Then provide an option for the long-term. While short-term financial stressors should be addressed first, it’s important to have long-term financial wellness benefits for healthcare as well. A great option for employers to consider is opening up health savings accounts for their employees, which can be a great tool to put aside healthcare dollars for future emergencies and expenses. These accounts are especially helpful for employees if the employer decides to contribute to them on a regular basis, similar to 401(k) matching.

3. Invest more. It’s tough to create a comprehensive benefits package without breaking the bank. However, it’s worth keeping in mind that there’s much more money spent by underutilized financial wellness programs than there are by smart investments in the right resources, education, and quality products. Also, you can rest assured that your investments will pay off given that, according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch, 91% of employees who do participate in their company’s financial wellness program say the resources they’re given are helpful.

Why healthcare financial wellness matters

Financial wellness isn’t just another buzzword or trendy benefit — it’s a pervasive issue that manifests itself both in and out of the workplace. Prudent HR teams understand the deeply troubling financial impact that healthcare costs can have on the mental and physical well-being of their employees, from decreased work productivity to increased levels of depression and postponed dreams of retirement. As you plan for your 2019 benefits package, don’t miss out on the opportunity to better support your employees’ financial health by addressing the missing piece in your financial wellness program: the financial impact of healthcare.

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