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How money stress hurts you (and your job)

September 4, 2014, 2:53 PM UTC
Bloomberg — Getty Images

What happens when money stresses you out? Headaches? Stomach issues? Sleepless nights?

What happens when money stresses you out at work? Maybe you take a day off, as more than one in five employees said they had done in the prior year, according to a 2012 study from MetLife. Or maybe you’re just plain distracted, as nearly one-third of Gen Xers are, according to research by PriceWaterhouse Coopers. (And if you are, you likely spend a good three hours a week either thinking about it or dealing with it.)

None of these things are good news for you, of course. But they’re not good news for your employer either. A workforce stressed out by money (which is, by the way, the biggest cause of Americans’ stress) is less productive, less engaged, and less well; Americans who have stress brought on by being in debt have back pain, depression, anxiety.

You get the idea. This is why three-quarters of the 400 large companies surveyed by benefits consulting firm Aon Hewitt said they’re planning to focus more on financial wellness this year.

“After 2008, employees were really, really struggling and employers were recognizing this, but feeling like they had to concentrate on their core business,” says Rob Austin, director of retirement research at Aon Hewitt. The situation now is different. The market has not only come all the way back, it has kept on going. But employees are still hurting.

“They’re still taking 401(k) loans, they’re not saving appropriately. We’re seeing somewhat flat savings rates [in retirement plans] from where we were in 2008,” Austin says. “It’s a bit of a new normal. So employers are starting to ask: How do we help?”

It’s also why the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is paying attention. Last week, the CFPB released a comprehensive report on Financial Wellness at Work. It lays out the case for helping employees manage their money as a way to improve employee engagement. What is that, exactly? It’s an HR euphemism for people who are satisfied with their jobs, committed to their companies and willing to go the extra mile to help their employers succeed. In other words, exactly what employers want. It also provides a potentially bigger bang for the buck. Notes Gail Hillebrand, CFPB associate director for consumer education and engagement: “Financial wellness is a lot cheaper than health wellness.”

For example? Hillebrand cites the U.S. Army, which offers employees an 8-hour “Personal Financial Management Course.” Employees doubled the amount they socked away in retirement savings at a cost to the Army of $22 per employee. (The cost is estimated to translate to about $240 per private sector employee, about the same salary for an 8-hour day.) The report also documented the experience of Pacific Market Research, a Seattle-based employer of 350 people, which worked with a local company that provided individual and classroom instruction in budgeting basics and dealing with debt. Employees also banded together in support groups of two-to-four to hold each other accountable. Nearly eight out of 10 employees said they made positive changes in their spending habits.

And then there’s Staples (SPLS) with a presence in 25 countries and 1,800 North American stores. It turned to a Vampire-themed computer game called, yes, Bite Club, to show employees that they were giving up free money by either not participating in the 401(k) or passing on matching dollars. (Another game, Refund Rush, was aimed at getting employees to save some if not all of their tax refunds.)

These early successes notwithstanding, financial wellness in the workplace is not a no-brainer. When you look at changes that have stuck in the employee benefits world – like movement from pensions to defined contribution retirement plans (like 401(k)s), and the increasingly rapid adoption of high deductible health insurance plans – they share two commonalities, Austin says. Employers can not only predict the cost, they can predict the savings. Financial wellness programs are a little squishier in terms of ROI.

Still, if you’re an employer exploring these waters, a few pieces of advice:

First, figure out what will make this a win for you. Is it having higher participation in your retirement plan or fewer loans taken from it? Is it having your workforce miss fewer days? Second, figure out how to meet employees where they are. Do you have a workforce full of millennials who are eager for online education? Or one full of Xers and Boomers who would prefer handholding from their peers or in-person coaching? And finally, offer your employees the opportunity to split their paycheck, depositing part of it in savings or an investment account in addition to checking. This is an easy, very low cost maneuver, Hillebrand says.

And if you’re an employee about to venture into yet another open enrollment period? Understand that the financial wellness solutions you’re about to see from your employer represent a toe dipped into the waters. Take advantage. Reap the benefits. And you may see more.