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Which Health and Financial Wellness Benefits Get the Lowest Engagement and Why

12 October 2018
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It seems pretty obvious that health and financial wellness benefits ought to be very popular and should enjoy high levels of employee engagement. Some are popular and do enjoy high levels of engagement, but many don't. To figure out what doesn't work is easiest if we ask which benefits get the most engagement and work backwards from there.

Starting with financial wellness, there seems to be a basic divide in approach between employer and employee. As Nick Otto wrote in Employee Benefits News, “Employers tend to focus on actions to manage immediate financial needs, such as budgeting and handling expenses, according to the study. Meanwhile, employees mostly prioritize long-term financial goals, such as tactics that help them save and invest for the future.”

Most employees don't want help with the short-term as much as employers believe. Focusing on long-term health and financial wellness and better employee communications should help.

Health and Financial Wellness: A Personal Tale

Even then, however, the employer may miss the boat. Once upon a time, I worked for a rating agency on Wall Street. I wasn't paid badly, but at the time, my salary was our only income (it was a tough six months) and my wife and I had three kids between 5 and 13. My employer brought in financial planners for the entire department, and I had a sit-down with two of them. We went through my situation, and within five minutes, they smiled, shook my hand and said, “We can't help you.”

If I had the money for an annuity, or a college savings plan or any of their other commission-generating products, I would have been their best friend. What I learned was I needed a better salary. Savings in income surplus to expenses. There was no surplus. Rather than engage me, the experience put me on a job hunt. I don't believe that anyone was really at fault here, but what I was being offered and what I needed didn't mesh.

That same employer, though, did right by me in the health department. The health insurance premiums were low for a family of five, and the choice of physicians was broad. When my appendix decided to go to war with me, I would up in hospital for 12 days (it didn't go well). The $20,000 bill was 98% covered by our insurance. I was sick, but not sick over the costs.

Nexus of Physical Health and Financial Wellness

That nexus of physical and financial wellness is often overlooked. As a study by Gartner put it: “few employees recognize the role of health care costs in their financial planning: 7 percent identified health care as a key component of financial wellness, even though more than half said they had skipped or postponed a medical need to save money.” It's a false economy and getting those co-payments down is key.

There was more good news back when I was a Wall Streeter. For $20 a month, I had access to the gym in the basement, which I used every day rather than take an hour lunch. Still, I couldn't really make use of the Medical Savings Account they offered because there wasn't anything to save.

The company was a few blocks away from the World Trade Center – I had left a few months before the attack, but I stayed in touch with many of my former co-workers. The office had to be abandoned and new accommodations had to be made after the towers fell. It was stressful in the extreme. But, free mental health checkups were available. More than a couple of my friends made use of it. The pity was that it took 9/11 to make it a priority.

Holistic Wellness

Gartner’s study (cited above) showed the benefits that get people engaged tend to be holistic, that is, physical well-being combined with financial and emotional well-being get results: “A program that includes physical, emotional, and financial wellbeing has a 33 percent greater impact on engagement than one that covers only physical wellbeing. Beyond those three, however, adding other wellness offerings doesn’t move the needle much further.”

The report went on: “With all such programs, including financial wellbeing, it’s important to make sure that the benefits you are offering your employees respond to their real needs and that it’s easy for them to participate in your program. The most successful wellbeing programs, we’ve found, are clearly communicated, user-friendly, and directly related to employees’ needs and concerns.”

Deducing What Doesn't Work

So, now, from this we can deduce what programs get minimal engagement. First and foremost, it's the benefits that are not well communicated. Flimp Media's case studies demonstrate the value of video in communicating with employees. Putting a 50-page hand-book in every employee's mailbox hoping they will read it isn't going to work.

Then, engagement declines as the ease of use declines. If I have to make an appointment and travel to enroll or change my menu choices for a benefit rather than click through a couple of screens on my phone, I probably won't use it.

But above all, a benefit that I don't need is the same as no benefit at all. In fact, it could be worse from an engagement standpoint. If a benefit isn't offered, well, maybe it's too expensive. I have worked at small firms where benefits were few because they cost a lot. But if a benefit doesn't suit my needs, then I begin to wonder if management knows the first thing about my situation.

The key to it all is to find out what staff members need most, and provide it as easily as possible. Integrate physical, emotional and financial wellness, and declare victory.

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Jeff Myhre

Jeff is a writer and editor with 35 years’ experience in business, economics and politics. He holds a PhD from the London School of Economics and a BA from the University of Colorado.

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