In general, American workers are uneasy about their financial situations. And they are right to be concerned. Studies have shown that many employees are underinsured for basic financial protection products, are not saving enough for retirement and are living paycheck to paycheck.

There is a silver lining beginning to emerge, however. MetLife Inc.’s recently released 6th Annual Employee Benefits Trends Study, which surveyed over 1,300 full-time American workers, shows employees are ready to take a more active role in planning their financial future. It also showed they are looking to their employers for help. That’s not surprising when you consider that more than half of working Americans obtain most of their financial and retirement products through the workplace.

Employee interest in receiving financial information and advice at work has jumped to an all-time high, according to MetLife’s study. They want information to help them plan for retirement, make better benefits decisions and address their general financial needs. Almost half of employees want access to financial planners and benefits advisors at the workplace.

Although employees are interested in retirement benefits, that’s not all that’s on their minds. They also want the ability to choose from a broader set of benefits, even if that means shouldering the financial burden. Another recent MetLife study showed that over 90% of Americans believe it is important for companies to continue to offer benefits, even if employees must pay most or all of the costs. In fact, 71% said it was very important.

Employees also say that benefits factor heavily into their decision to remain with a company or to work there in the first place. The MetLife study found that among employees who are highly satisfied with their benefits, 85% plan to be working for their current employer 18 months from now, compared to just 50% of those who say there are not satisfied with their benefits. In addition, 45% cited benefits as an important reason why they stay at their current job, up from 33% in 2006. Moreover, one-third of surveyed employees said benefits were an important reason for their decision to take a particular job.

What do all these trends mean for U.S. employers, who say their number one benefits objective is to improve employee retention and their number two objective is to control costs? In a word: opportunity. Those employers who can provide their employees with what they want–diverse benefits solutions and targeted education and communications–are better positioned to keep top talent in a competitive labor market.

The ability to retain employees can mean the difference between success and failure for a business. This is especially true in industries that count on highly-specialized skills, like technology or health care.

Which benefits matter

To make the most of their benefits plans, employers need to understand how and which benefits help build loyalty and retention. While employers seem to recognize that benefits are an important factor in keeping employees, they under-estimate just how important they are in building loyalty. For example, the study found that:

o 81% of employees cited health benefits as an important factor in loyalty, second only to salary-wages. Only 60% of employers said the same.

o 72% of employees said retirement benefits were an important factor in loyalty, tied with advancement opportunities. Only 41% of employers said the same.

By helping employers understand what’s driving employee loyalty, brokers and consultants can provide key counseling services to their clients and help them use their benefits strategically to respond to workforce needs.

Given that “getting benefits right” is good for employees and employers, employers who look to make their plans as effective as possible have a competitive edge.

Building an effective benefits plan to address employee financial concerns, support retention and control costs can be challenging, however. The study suggests strategies that brokers and benefits consultants can share with their clients.

For instance, employers can make the most of their plans by providing employees with a broad range of benefits choices and personalized advice so they can make smart benefits decisions, while at the same time controlling costs. Voluntary benefits, where employees pay the cost, are an excellent way to add to the breadth of the benefits portfolio–without adding to an employer’s overall benefits spending. So are wellness programs, which can actually drive down health care spending over the long term. Decision-support tools, like communication and advice, can increase plan participation, which also means employees are better prepared financially.

With employees hungry for benefits advice and primed for action, there is no better time than the present to encourage employers to take action themselves. Companies that successfully optimize benefits have much to gain.

Bill Mullaney is president of MetLife Institutional Business for MetLife Inc., New York. His e-mail is