Mix of Digital Solutions, Human Help Lifts Financial Wellness

By Dave Zielinski May 10, 2019
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​As more organizations adopt financial-wellness programs, many are coupling modern digital solutions and human support to improve their workers' financial literacy.

The rise of self-service applications, machine intelligence and e-learning approaches have allowed financial-wellness providers to deliver personalized education to employees when and where they want it. Machine learning algorithms can now automatically compile data to construct annual reviews of an employees' financial standing and recommend short- and long-term plans. Decision-support tools built into mobile apps help workers analyze 401(k) savings, develop plans to reduce student loan or credit card debt, and project how health care costs and taxes will affect their retirement nest eggs.

Experts say the best of these approaches use technology to improve employee access to and the efficient use of financial information, enabling financial counselors to address more-complex emotional or family-related issues often connected to employees' financial challenges.

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Growing Concern

When asked what causes the most stress in their lives, the respondents who pointed to financial matters were nearly double the number of those who said job stress in PwC's 2018 Employee Financial Wellness Survey. Such stress impacts not just employees' emotional and physical well-being, but also their productivity, performance and attendance at work.

In response to that trend, more organizations have introduced financial-wellness programs. According to a recent study from the Employee Benefit Research Institute, three out of four firms with more than 10,000 employees now offer a financial-wellness program.

By using a multipronged strategy for financial literacy, experts say, companies can cater to a range of employee learning preferences while creating a more holistic approach to financial wellness.

"You want to give employees several lenses through which to assess their financial situation and strike a balance between today's financial needs and lifestyle and long-term financial security," said Shane Bartling, a senior director with Willis Towers Watson in San Francisco who specializes in financial well-being and retirement plan design.

Willis Towers Watson has a web-based financial wellness product, called myFiTage, that uses algorithms to help employees assess their current financial health and offer suggestions for future financial well-being. The application helps users determine at what age they'll achieve financial independence, measuring progress toward goals and suggesting changes in financial behavior, Bartling said.

Integrated Solutions

"These approaches often start with an online financial-wellness assessment that creates an action plan and directs employees, in one click, to the right tools to make changes to their benefits or other practices based on their individual circumstances," said Liz Davidson, CEO of Financial Finesse, a provider of wellness programs in El Segundo, Calif. Preferably, she said, this would be a "one-stop-shopping" platform with appropriate data-security measures.

"Most bigger organizations use a large number of vendors that touch on the wellness topic, from credit unions to EAPs [employee assistance programs] to defined benefits providers and more," she said. "Ideally, all of those resources can be in a centralized place, delivered to employees in a personalized way. You want to make access as seamless as possible to increase employee use of wellness services."

EvoShare is another platform employers can offer as a perk: Employees can earn up to 20 percent cash back on their purchases to place in a 401(k) or to help retire debt like student loans. Money earned is linked directly to an employee's retirement or student loan account, so it can be automatically deposited. EvoShare partners with some 10,000 online and local businesses, such as stores, restaurants and bars. "It's a spending-to-save model for financial wellness," Davidson said.

She said more-established tools like myFiTage also have automated features that help simplify wellness programs. "It uses automatic data feeds from a 401(k), social security or other account so you don't have to find or input that information yourself."

Other financial-wellness platforms emphasize their online learning programs. The Financial Fitness Group is a San Diego-based software company with e-learning programs designed to improve employees' financial knowledge and practices.

Company founder Joe Saari said the platform creates a wellness score for employees; includes a library of financial-education content with courses in video, audio and gamified formats; and suggests more content for users based on their history and progress with other courses.

While the platform does offer human instructors, Saari said one of the appeals of e-learning is its privacy. "If you're having trouble with debt or worried about bankruptcy, you may not want to show up at a workshop and let your co-workers know you're struggling," he said.

Maintaining a Human Touch

Financial-wellness programs should offer an option to work with a human advisor or coach, experts say. Some mobile apps allow users to simply tap an icon to contact a financial counselor.

"Digital solutions have their place, but what they can't do is provide empathy to employees going through a financial challenge or crisis," Davidson said. "These can be complex emotional issues that often require a fine-tuned approach to help people calm their panic and start to feel hope again."

Although machine intelligence and artificial-intelligence-driven chatbots will likely make deeper inroads into the financial-wellness arena, Bartling is among those who believe the human element will remain essential. "Many of the challenges of financial well-being are rooted in emotional and family-relations issues that a chatbot obviously can't show empathy around," he said. "That's why we encourage marrying a technology experience with a human experience. It's not as simple as saying to an employee, 'You have to start saving more.' Issues can run deeper than that."

Mike Boro, a partner in the workforce of the future practice with PwC in New York City, said understanding the distinction between education and guidance is the key to effective wellness programs. "You want to deliver education rather than guidance that tells people what specifically to invest in, what debt to pay off first and so on," Boro said. "Employees should have the information and technology applications so they can decide for themselves. Part of that is not having someone who sells securities or investments delivering the education."

Dave Zielinski is a freelance business writer and editor in Minneapolis.

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