Employees who call a financial helpline service are reporting lower levels of financial stress than they were reporting a year ago.

Analysts at Financial Finesse Inc., El Segundo, Calif., a firm that runs a financial information telephone hotline that is often bundled into employee assistance programs and other benefits programs, has reported that finding in an analysis of calls made during the first quarter by the 500,000 employees with access to the service.

The percentage of callers who said they feel “high or overwhelming stress” as a result of financial problems dropped to 21% in the first quarter, from 32% in 2010 and from 33% in 2009.

The percentage who said they feel no stress increased to 14%, from 3% both a year ago and two years ago.

Some employees may feel stress as a result of health problems, pending layoffs or other factors that may be difficult for them to control.

But, in general, “financial stress is heavily correlated with poor money management skills, with a very direct relationship between the degree of financial stress someone faces and their ability to manage their expenses, control their debt, and pay their bills on time,” the Finesse analysts say.

The analysts found that “overwhelming stress” translates into concrete benefit plan decisions. About 96% of the callers who said they feel no financial stress contribute to 401(k) plans, as do 83% of the callers who said they feel overwhelming stress.

But 54% of the callers who feel overwhelming stress have taken retirement plan loans or hardship withdrawals, compared with just 10% of the callers who feel no stress.

Other analysis findings:

  • A higher income does not necessarily erase financial stress. About 85% of the Finesse callers with annual incomes from $20,000 to $34,999 said they feel at least some financial stress — but so did 72% of the callers with incomes over $199,999.
  • Only 17% of the callers facing overwhelming financial stress have written up wills and similar documents, compared with 41% of the callers facing no stress.

Other financial stress coverage from National Underwriter Life & Health: