Financial wellness is booming. If you’re not focusing on it, you’re behind. (Photo: iStock)

With financial stress rising, today’s workers are looking more than ever for ways to shore up their money. Increasingly that means looking for greater financial guidance through employer benefits. That’s why financial wellness programs are becoming an essential part of a company’s benefits offerings today.

Aon Hewitt released their annual study on the hot topics in retirement. In the latest study, a focus on the financial well-being of their workers beyond just retirement is the top initiative for the third year in a row, with 72 percent of employers committing to creating or executing on their strategy this year.

Bottom line, more employers than ever are expanding their financial wellness offerings this year, and if you are not focusing on it, you’re behind the curve.

Expanding financial wellness

There are many reasons companies are looking to expand their financial wellness benefits. According to the Aon Hewitt study, 84 percent of employers stated it was simply the right thing to do. They believe the addition of these financial well-being programs will help increase employee engagement, improve morale, and positively influence their company culture.

Other top reasons include improving their retirement statistics (encouraging higher contribution rates, minimizing leakage, and increasing participation), decreasing the amount of time employees spend at work addressing financial issues, and decreasing their medical costs. Increased employee demand for financial wellness benefits was also cited.

The facts support this reasoning. The average worker is only contributing 5.5 percent of their income into retirement, far short of the 15 percent widely recommended. Twenty-one percent of those who do contribute are borrowing against their 401(k).

Productivity is also a factor. Nearly half of workers acknowledge they spend time at work dealing with personal finances at an average of 45 minutes per day. That’s more than three hours per week.

Stress has been called the “health epidemic of the 21st century” by the World Health Organization and is estimated to cost American businesses up to $300 billion a year. The leading cause of stress? Personal finances.

As a result, companies are starting to communicate the link between financial stress and physical health, with more than a third of employers offering integrated physical and financial wellness programs to their employees.

Finally, employees are asking for help. The number one source for retirement education is their employer. Employees trust their company, and most have the majority of their financial resources tied to their employer already through their retirement plan, health insurance, HSAs, and more.

Employees are struggling

The average employee is broke. In fact, 70 percent of Americans live paycheck to paycheck and 64 percent couldn’t cover a $1,000 emergency without borrowing money. And they are drowning in debt. The average employee spends 24 percent of their take-home pay on consumer debt payments.

In addition, far too many (52 percent) have less than $10,000 saved for retirement and more than a third have less than $1,000. That is staggering.

These financial issues aren’t the problem; they are just symptoms. The problem is behavior. We have to address the real problem and get employees out of debt, saving for emergencies, and on a budget. It is the only way they can establish true financial health.

Holistic financial wellness is the key 

True financial wellness is a holistic approach to finance that gets to the root of the problem by addressing poor financial behaviors.

It’s important to helped people change the way they handle money. We have discovered three key components to creating lasting behavior change.

First, the program must be simple and clear. Finances can be intimidating. People need a step-by-step plan to make it accessible and digestible.

Second, it has to be motivating and inspiring. Personal finance is 80 percent behavior; it’s only 20 percent head knowledge. People need quick wins to keep them motivated and inspiration to know they reach their goals.

Third, there must be an environment for success. Behavior change is a process, not an event. You cannot move the needle in a lunch-and-learn or one-time workshop. People do not want to talk about their money problems with their coworkers. When you build an environment for success, you’re making the right behaviors easier.

Your program needs to be online and accessible from any device. It must be personalized to the employee but anonymous to get large-scale utilization. And you can’t have big barriers to entry like a one-hour personal coaching session to get started.

The financial wellness landscape

There are many definitions of financial wellness out there today. To navigate the landscape you need to understand the four categories of financial wellness.

When you think about financial wellness, it is easiest to think about it in relation to health wellness. If you want to become healthier or more physically fit, there are different ways you can approach the problem.

First is the status quo. You can go to the gym for an hour one time, but if that’s all you do, it won’t impact your health long-term. In the financial world, an enrollment meeting or a topical workshop might be one-time events. While they may be instructional, they don’t have a lasting impact on overall financial wellness.These things aren’t bad, but they are incomplete.

Next is education and literacy. If you want to get healthy, you can go to a website and read about eating healthy and working out. The problem is, all you have is information without any direction on how to get started. You’ll likely be overwhelmed. You might implement one or two suggestions, but you won’t experience a complete transformation.

In the financial wellness space, some products provide access to financial education, but without a clear plan and motivation, the odds of people changing their behaviors are slim.

Then there are tools. You could set up a home gym. You could fill that room with equipment and believe that is going to bring you results.The only problem is that without instruction or a plan, it likely won’t get used. It’s just another room in your house. In the same vein, retirement calculators and financial tools can be great resources, but most go unused. Without a workable plan and plenty of motivation, they fall short.

Finally, there are coaching and behavioral programs. To continue with the health analogy, you could go online and get a fitness app. You’re asked questions up front to get to know your goals. It gives you a clear, step-by-step plan on how to achieve those goals. It might even remind you to take action.

It gives you information to help educate along the way. This is the most effective option because it pairs motivation with a plan and the education needed to be successful. The same is true in financial wellness. The behavioral coaching model is most effective.

There are key components to look for in a coaching and behavioral program.

First is a plan. If employees don’t know exactly what they need to do next, they won’t take action. A simple, step-by-step plan is vital.

Next is great content. Education shouldn’t just be informative; it needs to be inspiring and motivating as well.

Third is a budget tool. When it comes to money, monthly budgeting is the critical rhythm people need to establish to create lasting behavior change.

Next is personalization. The program needs to be personalized to the employee. Some general content is fine, but there must be some level of personalization to keep people engaged and working the plan.

Mobile capability is crucial. People must have access to the program 24/7 on any device. Life and money happen on the go.If the program is not available on mobile, the odds of people using it are very low.

Finally, there can be no solicitations.You don’t want a sales pitch masquerading as education. Solicitations erode trust in the program and the information provided.

Employers have needs as well. Reporting is critical. Success is not just about participation rates. How many people are engaging? What actions are they taking? How are behaviors changing over time? Any good financial wellness program should be able to show you a proven track record of behavior change.

Dedicated relationship management and communication support are essential for a successful financial wellness program. You need it to be turnkey and easy for you to roll out to your employees.

Financial wellness the right way

Financial wellness is booming. If you’re not focusing on it, you’re behind. Employers are identifying the negative effects poor financial health is having on their business and want to solve the root problem.

A true, holistic financial wellness program will address the real behavioral issues affecting employees and get them back on track with their finances and more focused on the job. If financial wellness is truly the right thing to do, then it is worth doing the right way.