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Why financial wellness can no longer be an afterthought

Financial wellness: It’s an HR buzzword. But with a number of players involved — from the C-suite to benefits managers to brokers and employees — there often is confusion regarding the best kind of program, the best way to implement it and how to get employees engaged. That’s leading to a lot of discussion — but few concrete solutions.

“There are competing priorities, and not everyone is talking with one another,” says Denise Winston, CEO of Money Starts Here, a California-based financial education company. “There’s a lot of noise in this space, and there are so many demographics that we’re dealing with. It can be so confusing.”

Employee Benefit News spoke with Winston on how employers can cut through some of the confusion, as well as her take on where financial wellness programs are, where they can go, and challenges and opportunities for employers.

Employee Benefit News: Financial wellness has been a hot topic the last few years. What’s driving its popularity?

Winston: It used to be all about health and wellness. Employers have finally made the correlation between financial stress and what it does on the health and wellness side. Not only is financial stress impacting healthcare costs, but also productivity. And the Affordable Care Act put additional financial stress on everyone that has made it hard to ignore. There’s a lot more cost-sharing. We need to be educated consumers, and the ACA has put a magnifying glass on the fact that we have a financial problem in our nation.

EBN: What is something you want employers to recognize about financial wellness?

Winston: It’s important to understand that we’re all in this together. When employees are hurting, it hurts your business and your profit margins. And it hurts our economic growth, because the lack of financial wellness has an extreme impact on people’s lives, on their employer’s profitability, the communities they live in and our nation’s overall economic growth. When someone isn’t financially stable, it limits an individual’s purchasing power and their ability to secure basic needs.

And that creates financial stress, which suppresses immune systems, which can make people sick. A financially stressed and sick workforce impacts business profitability with higher healthcare costs and lost productivity, and that in turn can drain public resources and restrict our economic growth.

EBN: It speaks to how all these employee benefits talk to each other, and why financial wellness has expanded to overall well-being.

Winston: I think we kind of have it backward. When people are financially stressed they self-medicate, which very rarely means, ‘Let me go to the gym.’ It usually means, ‘Give me more food, give me more alcohol, give me a pill” … all of those have an impact. I feel like we had it backward and now it’s starting to unravel. What if employees could get the financial help they need? What could happen if people were financially stable? What would happen to our productivity and profit margins?

See also: The $900K difference: How one company made financial wellness work

EBN: There are concerns that financial wellness programs are falling short or are not helping workers with their financial problems. Is this something you’re seeing?