How COVID-19 could be a financial wellness springboard
Physical health isn't the only thing to monitor during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to recent studies, which suggest the fate of businesses could depend on an ability to use financial wellness initiatives to restructure their financial and cultural mindset.
But what is financial wellness, and what can businesses do to cultivate it?
To enjoy financial wellness is to have control over daily and monthly finances, be able to meet financial goals, have enough rainy day money to survive an emergency and be able to splurge a little, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Of course, at this stage in the COVID-19 crisis, it's all about step one — staying afloat day-to-day — according to Neil Lloyd, who heads Mercer's US DC and financial wellness research.
But as the workforce gradually returns, there'll be opportunities for major reinvention, the way Lloyd sees it.
"I think this is a time when you can look back at your benefits and say, 'Well, given what we just learned, is there a better way to structure benefits that meet the needs of people?' " Lloyd said. "Because this is going to be in people's minds. They're not going to forget it in six months' time."
For some organizations, that might mean introducing an emergency savings account option to cover unexpected events, or providing tools that help staff understand and build their credit scores — widely expected to take a tumble in the coming months.
Why bother with financial wellness?
Even before COVID-19, 67% of employees reported feeling personally stressed, according to PwC's 2019 employee financial wellness survey, which found 57% had less than $1,000 in emergency savings and 49% struggled to meet their financial obligations each month.
Those kinds of money worries are a bane for productivity, morale and turnover, according to the Retirement Advisor Council, which says the best way to reduce stress in the workforce is to tackle employee's financial problems at their source.
Likewise, Mercer's 2020 global talent trends survey of 7,300 senior business executives, HR leaders and employees across nine industries concluded that economics and empathy can and should coexist.
Though an organization's ability to survive and expand depends on the talent and engagement of its workforce, Mercer found 63% feel at risk of burnout. And though 78% of employees said they want long-term financial planning, only 23% of companies said they provide it.
That means COVID-19 and its aftermath could present an opportunity for human resources departments to step up.
"Employers are also going to have a lot on their minds, so it's going to be quite tough," Lloyd said. "But ideally, try and see what you can learn from what we've just been through. What were all those stresses and strains that your people had? Maybe survey them and talk to them. Learn from this."
Financial wellness initiatives only became popular about five years ago, according to Lloyd, who said Mercer's latest survey suggests a change in the winds. While executives used to focus on the financial returns for each initiative, Lloyd says they're developing a new understanding that, "If you look after your people well, they will ultimately look after you."
"When we were talking to clients, what tended to happen quite quickly was, 'Let me see the return on investment for financial wellness., i.e. put a dollar in here, [and] what do I get back?'" Lloyd said. "People are beginning to not look at it like that."
How to increase financial wellness
There's plenty of room for financial wellness initiatives in 2020, according to Mercer, as its survey revealed only 29% of HR leaders have a health and wellbeing strategy in place, even though 61% of employees said they trusted their employer to look after their wellbeing and 48% of executives labeled it a top concern.
Offerings could range from group training sessions or one-on-one consultations to online resources or classes aimed at helping employees budget, save and manage debt, or even buy their first home. They might also help establish emergency funds, automatically enroll staff in retirement plans and open benefits up to all family members.
Mission: Money outlines six steps to establishing a financial wellness program — starting with deciphering the root causes of money woes. For some, it might be credit card or student loan debt, while for others it could be health care or retirement plan savings.
That information, coupled with an organization's business objectives, is what employers should base their offerings on.
Above all, Lloyd says every initiative should build financial confidence, as opposed to unwittingly tearing it down. That means placing less emphasis on where an employee started and more on celebrating what they've achieved.
"It doesn't help to say to somebody, 'We did a financial literacy test and you scored 35%,' when everybody knows 35% is bad. That can actually make somebody feel a lot worse about things," Lloyd said. "Avoid getting into that situation where people think they're a failure and want to avoid this topic. Rather, ensure that whatever we do in the financial wellness side is empowering and makes people more confident to keep on engaging with financial issues."
Crucially, as employee needs, business objectives and markets change, so should financial wellness strategies. "Financial wellness is not something we've had 30, 40 years of success with, so you have to be prepared to try something new," Lloyd said. "There's a very good chance something's not going to work, and you change it. That's the process."