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Financial Planning > Behavioral Finance

Why Many Employees Abstain From Financial Wellness Programs

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Something is lacking in employer financial wellness programs. Even though an increasing number of employers are offering these programs and employees express a desire for them, employee participation rates are low.

A recent survey of roughly 667 employers who offered 401(k) plans and 657 employees who contributed to a 401(k) plan from Bank of America Merrill Lynch found that less than one-third of employees participated in financial wellness programs.

The problem: a disconnect between what employees want from these programs and what employers provide.

(Related: Average 401(k) Deferral Rate Reaches All-Time High: T. Rowe Price)

According to the survey, which was conducted by Boston Research Technologies, employees desire financial freedom, a focus on the single next thing to do, taking one step at a time, and saving and investing for the future (including retirement).

Employers are more focused on the current circumstances of their employees — their employee finances and budgeting, understanding of the benefits that the employer provides, including  health care coverage, and the impact of those benefits on employees’ personal finances. 

Only 7% of employees identify health care as an important component of their financial wellness and 53% report skipping or postponing at least one medical appointment or medication to save money.

Employees want a personal program that provides a financial assessment as well as specific actions to take and means to track and measure their progress in reaching financial goals. Advice from a professional is the number one resource they cite for improving their financial wellness.

“Employees are speaking loud and clear about their desire for programs that give them a holistic, personalized and measurable roadmap for achieving financial wellness,” said Lisa Margeson, head of Retirement Client Experience and Communications at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, in a statement.

The report notes that 56% of employers surveyed say they offer broad and holistic financial wellness programs to employees and 46% report that they have expanded their financial wellness programs. Together (there may be overlap, but that’s not explained) they report a 71% increase in employee participation compared to last year.

The report concludes with recommendations and options for employers to increase employee participation in financial wellness programs:

  • Actively promote the programs and communicate their benefits. Include such communications in new hire and annual enrollment materials and provide tangible rewards or incentives to increase employee participation.
  • Address topics that are relevant across different employee groups, using multiple channels and formats to reach employees. For example, tailor content for women, who tend to live longer and earn and save less than men, and for younger people. Forty-seven percent of women and 44% of people under 40 (women and men) report they are less than financially well, compared with 29% of men and 23% of those 60 and over, respectively.
  • Offer personalized assistance by providing access to financial professionals who can address individual needs, action plans with step-by-step tasks that employees can take and baseline measurements so employees can monitor their progress toward achieving financial wellness.


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