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Financial Wellness Programs Take Center Stage with Employers

Five years ago, employers were just starting to provide workers with financial benefits beyond their retirement plan, but now financial wellness appears to be firmly entrenched in the benefits space, according to a recent report.

Nearly two-thirds of employers say they are very likely to take steps in 2019 to create or focus on the financial wellbeing of their workers in ways that go beyond retirement savings, according to Alight Solution’s 2019 Hot Topics in Retirement and Financial Wellbeing report. In fact, this percentage grew from 30% in 2014 to 65% in 2019, including a 13-point increase from last year.

Alight’s 2019 survey marks the 15thinstallment of the report and features the responses of nearly 175 organizations that employ 7.6 million workers concerning the changes the employers intend to make to their retirement and financial wellness plans in the year ahead.

Holistic Planning

Among the key themes for 2019 is that employers are concentrating most on finding ways to incorporate finances into broader wellness initiatives that include physical, emotional and social wellbeing.This includes adding features that help workers decide between paying down debt, establishing an emergency fund or saving for retirement.

“From helping new-to-the-workforce individuals pay off their student loans to assisting near-retirees with navigating the retirement process, employers are offering a bevy of tools, resources and educational campaigns designed to help workers gain more solid financial footing,” the authors write.

As such, workers apparently have access to more financial wellness tools and services than ever before. Alight’s data shows that half of all companies now offer a tool, service or educational campaign to their workers about the basics of financial markets and simple investing. This includes services that educate employees about the relationship between risk and return, and the differences between stocks and bonds. Among companies that do not currently offer these services, 82% say they are “very likely” or “moderately likely” to do so in the coming year.

At the same time, financial planning – such as creating a broad financial plan incorporating major purchases, medical expenses, retirement savings and income planning – is another area receiving increased attention. This service is currently offered by 38% of responding organizations – which is a 10% increase from the previous year – while another 74% said they are very or moderately likely to do so in the coming year.

Integrating Decisions

As to further integrating retirement with health and welfare decisions, slightly more employers indicated support for incorporating DC plan elections in annual health care enrollment. When asked how likely it is their organization will address this, 46% said they are either very or moderately likely to do so in the coming year — this is up from 34% who said the same in the 2018 survey.

In addition, more than 80% of employers with HSAs highlight the long-term savings appeal of the vehicle. According to the report, three-quarters of companies with HSAs send communications to workers highlighting both the short-term and long-term advantages of HSAs, while another 7% focus exclusively on the long-term savings benefits.

While 85% of employers said they currently offer an HSA – up from 80% in the 2018 survey, the one drawback from the survey is that only 2% said they plan to offer one in the coming year and 13% said they have no plans to offer one.

Student Loan Programs Still Gaining Traction

Student loan repayment programs is another area that many companies are interested in exploring, but the overall number of companies that have such a program remains relatively low, the study further observes. At the beginning of 2019, only 1 out of every 20 companies has a program in place that provides money to workers to repay their student loans.

And while nearly one in five companies (17%) currently offer tools to help employees consolidate and/or refinance an existing student loans, 61% indicate that they are interested in offering a program.

There has been increased interest following the IRS’s private letter ruling to allow employers to make matching contributions to workers’ 401(k), 403(b), and SIMPLE retirement plans as if their student loan payments were salary reduction contributions, but it appears the survey did not address this question.

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