Employers say controlling benefits costs is now their top benefits objective.

A unit of MetLife Inc., New York (NYSE:MET), has published data on that shift in a summary of results from its eighth annual benefits trends study.

The company commissioned a survey of 1,503 benefits decision-makers at U.S. companies with at least 2 employees and a survey of 1,305 interviews with full-time U.S. employees ages 21 and over at companies with at least 2 employees.

In previous years, employers identified retaining good employees are their top benefits objective.

“This year, although retention remains strong, cost control reemerged as their primary concern, chiefly because of the economy,” says Dr. Ron Leopold, a vice president at MetLife. T

More than 8 in 10 employers — 84% — now cite productivity as an important benefits objective, up from 79% in 2008.

Meanwhile, 68% of the employees who participated in the employee survey reported feelings of increased job insecurity, a decrease in the quality of their work, an increase in their workload, or an increase in the frequency that financial worries are distracting them at work.

About 77% of the employees said employer-sponsored financial advice and guidance programs would improve their productivity, and 81% said health and wellness programs would improve their productivity.

About 37% of the employers said they already offer wellness programs, up from 33% in 2008 and 27% in 2005.

MetLife found that employees in poor health are more likely to report financial concerns: 65% of employees who assess their medical health as fair or poor said they live paycheck-to-paycheck, compared with 43% of employees in good or better health.

About 54% of the employees said recent economic events have increased their interest in actively saving for retirement, but only 35% of employers now offer retirement planning seminars.

Leopold says employees are especially interested in securing a guaranteed income stream by buying products such as annuities.

Although “employees are very interested in more guaranteed streams of income, employers are moving modestly in that direction,” Leopold says. “Therein lies a huge opportunity for employers to diversify investments in a way that will provide more meaningful value to the employees.”