The Wall Street Journal
‘Can Companies Solve Workers’ Money Problems?‘
By Rachel Feintzeig
7 April 2015
Companies are expanding their wellness programs to focus on workers’ wallets in addition to their waistlines.
Meredith Corp., Staples Inc. and PepsiCo Inc., among others, have begun offering programs aimed at improving employees’ financial security.
Modeled after physical-wellness programs that invite employees to lose weight or undergo health screenings, financial-wellness programs include finance classes, counseling sessions and even ideograms designed to help staffers pay down debt, stick to a budget and invest for their retirement.
Bosses say the programs also boost productivity, citing research findings that suggest workers under financial strain can be distracted and absent from work.
Employees, though, may wonder why their employers don’t just pay them more.
Several years after the global recession and a long spell of anemic wage growth, American workers still aren’t happy about the state of their finances.
The most recent Labor Department jobs report shows average hourly earnings for private-sector worker were up 2.1% in March from the prior year, and the wages have been growing at about 2% for the past four years. nearly 80% of workers in the U.S. and Puerto Rico are under moderate to high levels of financial stress, according to evaluations of about 40,000 workers conducted by the financial-education firm Financial Fitness Group last year.
Companies say financially stressed workers call in sick more often and may be delaying retirement. In 2013, 76% of employers said they were interested in financial-wellness programs, according to a survey by Aon Hewitt. Last year, 93% said they were planning to create or expand their efforts.
At Meredith Corp., workers who complete a 35-question “financial wellness checkup” or take a course on refinancing their mortgage earn points that can make them eligible for cheaper health plans offered by the media company.
Employee’s spouses can accrue points too, says Tim O’Neil, the company’s director of employees benefits and wellness. In 2014, 80% of Meredith’s 5,200 emplyees and spouses completed at least one workshop, and 95% filled out the questionnaire, which asks whether the person is behind on bills and whether financial stress affects their productivity at work.
Since the program began, employees’ financial stress has abated at a pace that Mr. O’Neil says reflects more than just the improvement in the economy. The company says employees’ focus at work has improved, too. According to Meredith surveys, 88% of workers who reported less money stress used no sick time last year, a figure that was 10 percentage points better than for those with higher levels of money stress.
As corporate-benefits programs shift more responsibility onto workers, Meredith’s chief executive, Stephen Lacy, says he hopes the personal-finance help will “empower” employees to make the right choices. ” This whole self-directed activity is extremely risky without a lot of education and effort,” he says.
Others say businesses are trying to solve a problem of their own making. “Companies pulled away a lot of the social safety net that they used to provide, ” says Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor of organizational behavior at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. “Since we pulled away the safety net, you of course are going to be stressed.”
In a Towers Watson report from March 2014, 76% of workers said their employer “recently enacted significant changes that could compromise their near-term or long-term finances,” like scaling back retirement benefits or raising health-care costs.
“It can feel a little like ‘budget better, you’ll have more money,” says a Meredith editor in New York who spoke anonymously to avoid offending her bosses. “If I make more money, I’ll have more money.”
She has also found the program “a bit big brother-y,” adding: “There’s something a little uncomfortable about the person who pays your salary knowing what margins you have.”
Meredith says that individuals’ financial information is confidential and that it views workers’ survey response only in the aggregate. Employers also say that financial-wellness programs show employees that they care–and also cost less than increasing pay. Meredith says its program costs $100,000 a year.
Michael Case Smith, who oversees a 401(k) fund that provides one-on-one financial counseling to participating workers, says the counseling provides a “perceived benefit” to workers. “Anything [companies] can deliver that gives the employee the feeling that the employer cares for them…is timely,” he says.
Mike Kelly, who runs a general-contracting business in Chicago, added the financial-wellness 401(k) for his employees last year. During the recession, some workers requested loans from their plans to make ends meet. He worries about employees being distracted on the job– potential safety issue– because of financial stress but says he can’t afford to increase wages.
“If pay is holding steady, what else can you offer them?” he asks. “We haven’t given out pay increases, but we can say, ‘Hey, we’ve got a way to manage your money more efficiently.”
At Pepsi, about 15 counselors from PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP are on hand to help employees who want to take a class on foreclosure or need help navigating insurance claims after natural disasters. The counselors also keep management apprised what generally, is on the employees’ minds, says Chad Ryan, the company’s director of compensation and benefits.
Adding some levity to a dry topic, Staples has created video games that teach workers about money. For example, “Bite Club,” a vampire-themed game, shows players how to save for retirement. Despite some eye-rolling, the office-supplies retailer says, about 15,000 associates have played it.
Raymond Sablan says the fun of competing against co-workers, plus a character that reminded him of the popular “Twilight” series, was the “bait” he needed to start a 401(k) a few years back. Now a manager at Texas Staples, he says he regularly urges his direct reports to play.