Health and Financial Concerns Take Toll on Workers' Productivity

Of employees highly satisfied with their benefits, 81 percent were also satisfied with their jobs

By Stephen Mille Apr 16, 2010

The recession and modest economic recovery have reduced employee productivity and shifted employers’ benefits objectives, according to MetLife’s 8th annual Employee Benefits Trends Study, based on a survey conducted during the fourth quarter of 2009.

Controlling costs is now the top benefits objective for U.S. employers, edging out employee retention for the first time since 2006, while improving employee productivity remains the third most important benefits objective.

At the same time, economic pressures have impacted workers. According to the study, released in April 2010, 68 percent of employees said that over the previous 12 months they were affected by increased feelings of job insecurity, a decrease in the quality of their work, an increase in their workload or being distracted at work because of financial worries.

“In a still-fragile economy, organizations are searching for ways to maximize their benefits programs to improve employee productivity and control costs. Programs that help improve employee health and financial security can be strategic tools for helping address these objectives," says Anthony J. Nugent, executive vice president for U.S. business at MetLife, a financial services firm.

Providing access to health and wellness programs, work/life balance programs, and financial advice and guidance in the workplace might prove to be a “win-win” for employers and employees, Nugent says, noting that two-thirds (66 percent) of employees who are very satisfied with their employers’ benefits say that because of their benefits they worry less about unexpected health and financial issues.

Wellness Programs Might Influence Productivity

The popularity of wellness programs continues to increase slowly but steadily among employers. According to the study, 37 percent of U.S. employers offer a wellness program, up from 33 percent in 2008 and 27 percent in 2005. Among large employers—those with 500 or more employees—61 percent offer a wellness program, up from 57 percent in 2008 and 46 percent in 2005.

Employee participation in wellness programs is also increasing. More than half (57 percent) of employees with access to a wellness program say they participate, compared to 46 percent in 2008. Fifty percent of employees who participate in wellness programs say they are motivated to do so by financial incentives.

Wellness Success Statistics

Employees who participated in wellness programs reported success with the following wellness goals:

Wellness Goal

Success Rate

Get regular checkups


Lose weight


Increase exercise


Improve diet and nutrition


Manage blood pressure


Manage cholesterol levels


Manage stress levels


Lower alcohol consumption


Stop smoking


Source: 8th AnnualMetLife Study of Employee Benefits

Easing Financial Worries Might Increase Productivity

According to the MetLife study, employees in poor health are more likely to report financial concerns. Specifically:

  • Nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of employees who assess their medical health as fair or poor say they live paycheck to paycheck, compared to 43 percent of people in good or better health.
  • More than one-third (34 percent) of employees who assess their medical health as fair or poor expect that their financial situation will deteriorate in the next six months compared to only 12 percent of people in good or better health.

Many employers are recognizing the impact that these financial woes might have on their company’s bottom line in productivity costs, says Ronald Leopold, vice president of U.S. business at MetLife. Almost two-thirds (65 percent) of employers believe that employees are less productive at work when they are worried about personal financial problems, and over half (52 percent) believe that absenteeism increases when employees are dealing with personal financial issues, the study found.

"It is not surprising that one-quarter of employees admit feeling more distracted at work because of financial worries, given that more than half (56 percent) of working Americans, and 62 percent of working women, are very concerned about just making ends meet," Leopold points out. "Only about one-third (37 percent) of employees surveyed express confidence about their ability to make the right financial decisions."

One of the major lessons that employees learned this past year is the need to focus on building long-term financial security, Leopold adds. "Over half (54 percent) of employees report that the economic events of the previous year have made them realize that they need to more actively manage saving for retirement. To achieve this, many are seeking advice and guidance in the workplace—42 percent of employees are interested in their employer providing access to retirement planning seminars, yet only 35 percent of employers currently offer these," Leopold notes.

“By promoting programs that can help employees help themselves, employers can remove some of the financial burden from employees’ shoulders,” says Leopold. “Employers, in turn, can reap the benefits of a more productive, loyal workforce. Of employees highly satisfied with their benefits, 81 percent were also satisfied with their jobs. Of employees notsatisfied with their benefits, only 23 percent said they were satisfied with their jobs.”

The 8th Annual MetLife Study of Employee Benefits Trends was conducted during the fourth quarter of 2009 and consisted of 1,503 interviews with benefits decision-makers at U.S. companies with at least two employees, and an employee sample comprised 1,305 interviews with full-time employees age 21 and over at companies with at least two employees.

Positioning Benefits

These days, benefits don't necessarily have to be a competitive differentiator, "but they should not create a competitive disadvantage, either," said Randall Abbott, a senior consultant and practice leader at consultancy Towers Watson. Abbott spoke at MetLife's Sixth National Benefits Symposium, held in Washington, D.C., on April 12, 2010.

"Benefits design should support a clearly articulated shared financial responsibility," Abbot said. "Ease of administration should influence strategy and design. Self-service and decision support tools must be robust."

With the enactment of health care reform, which beginning in 2011 requires employer-provided group plans to provide first-dollar coverage of preventive services, no lifetime maximums and dependent coverage up to age 26, Abbott said basic health care coverage will be even less of a differentiator among employers. That's another reason to focus on providing workforce wellness programs that are not mandated by the reform law.

According to Towers Watson's Staying@Work Study 2009/2010, companies with the most effective health and productivity programs have:

  • 1.2 percentage points lower medical cost trends
  • 1.8 fewer days unplanned absence per employee
  • 28 percent higher shareholder returns over a five-year period
  • 11 percent higher workforce productivity
  • Lower turnover, fewer lost days for disability, lowest levels of presenteeism and greatest improvement in lowering lifestyle risks.

Voluntary Benefits as a 'value Add'

Abbott also encouraged employers to provide access to employee-paid voluntary benefits, and to use their purchasing power as institutions to negotiate lower rates for individual benefit purchases. "I call these benefits "Insta-vidual," because they're individually purchased but at institutional rates," Abbott said.

Stephen Milleris an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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