What distresses employees the most? For at least the last five years, the American Psychological Association’s Work and Well-Being Survey has found that personal financial concerns top the list of “work stress factors.”
Many employees wonder if they’ll have enough savings to get them through an emergency and whether they’ll be able to pay their mortgages, college bills and other debts. They also worry about job security and about their ability to retire when they want.
How does the financial anxiety of employees affect your organization?
Richard Cordray, the director of the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), pointed out that “a financially capable workforce is more satisfied, more engaged, and more productive for their employers.” That’s according to preliminary evidence presented in the CFPB’s 2014 report, “Financial Wellness at Work.” The report also showed that stressed-out employees tend to get sick more often and miss work, whatever the source of that stress.
Intuitively, all of this makes sense, and scores of vendors have sprouted up offering to help employers tackle the problem. Just as with programs intended to foster physical wellness, the job of helping employees turn things around is easier said than done. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try, particularly if you have already been investing in employee education in other areas of employees’ lives.
For example, you probably have some resources in place to help employees determine how to best use the company 401(k) plan, sort through health plan options, or understand the benefits of health savings accounts. If so, your employees may be accustomed to receiving training through the workplace about issues that affect them personally.
In its report, the CFPB highlighted financial wellness programs that appear to be effective. Keep in mind, the good ones focus on the employee’s entire financial life, covering both immediate and long-term needs. The idea is not to provide a static blueprint, but to equip individuals to create a plan, then manage and adapt it over time.
Employees who are the most “unwell” may have taken on excessive and unsustainable levels of debt. While an employee may understand his or her own predicament, knowing how to get out of it is another matter.
One successful program identified in the CFPB report leveraged the power of peer-to-peer support for this challenge. The goal — as with programs that address weight loss and smoking cessation — is to build accountability within a small, compatible group of employees.
Productive peer-to-peer interactions can be fostered “by creating a safe environment where participants feel they can share their questions and experience without being judged,” said the report.
In training sessions, employees are encouraged to share their stories with people around them, possibly establishing the basis for an accountability group.
Employees benefiting from the approach described in the report aren’t limited to those with lower incomes. The employer, a teleresearch company, noticed that many managers who were struggling with financial tasks found help in the training sessions.
Winners and Losers
Another successful program taps into the power of “gamification.” A nonprofit financial education vendor created several Web-hosted games that give participating employees points for making prudent financial decisions. According to the CFPB report, the goal is to link game play to positive action that benefits the employee.
The game has winners and losers, and the competitive spirit within that employer’s workforce propelled many employees (80% of those targeted) to engage.
Many workers, however, won’t commit to participating in a financial wellness initiative even when they clearly could benefit from it. One approach to address this problem on a going-forward basis is to incorporate a dose of financial education into your onboarding program. This type of material can be a natural complement to a company’s employee benefit information that all new employees already receive.
The cost of financial wellness programs generally varies according to the level of human counseling provided. Some local governments and nonprofit organizations have taken up the cause of financial wellness and might be a source of subsidy.
For example, in Delaware, the United Way, private foundations and the state itself have been providing financial coaching programs for the last four years.
The program, called “$tand by Me,” has supported dozens of employers that have a high concentration of low wage earners. Similar programs may be available on a local basis for interested companies.
Plenty of Help Out There
Employee financial stress is pervasive and not limited to low-income groups. Undoubtedly this pressure impedes many people from doing their best work. You may or may not decide it’s up to you to try to ameliorate the stress. If you do, be aware that many vendors are offering services to help.
As with investing in any other service, a patient, probing approach to choosing vendors is important. Together with your new service provider, you can decide on and track success indicators that are attainable for your workforce.