NEW YORK (TheStreet) — Financial wellness is an emerging watchword in executive boardrooms, with high-profile brands such as Staples and Pepsi now offering workers financial enrichment and education programs, much of it focused on retirement savings.
"Financial wellness" is a broad term, encompassing onsite classes led by financial advisors, direct financial counseling sessions and newsletters and podcasts geared to helping workers better understand financial issues so they can better manage their money.
"Historically, employers have done a pretty good job of helping employees with retirement planning, but it turns out that's only half the picture," says Brian Cosgray, co-founder and CEO of DoubleNet Pay, a consumer financial services firm. "Many employees need help managing their finances today — paying bills, saving for necessities such as emergencies and loss of income and having a clear view of discretionary funds. It's difficult for employees to grasp the importance of saving for retirement when they're having difficulty managing their current financial needs."
Financial literacy in the workplace wasn't always a priority.
Jean Marie Dillon, a certified financial planner in Ashville, N.C., chose her career in large part because she saw the need for greater money management counseling when she was vice president of human resources at a Chicago medical firm. "Employees were coming to human resources for help in debt reduction, credit score management and asset allocation," she says. "But the company's retirement plan was inherently biased to steer employees into the provider's investments — and not always act in the best interest of the employee. "
One bit of biased advice caused an employee in her late 50s to approach Dillon in tears, having lost a good chunk of her retirement savings in technology stocks during the dot-com bust. " I could do nothing for her. The damage was done," she says. "So I decided to become a certified financial planner to help educate employees."
Others got the message, too.
Regions Bank in Birmingham, Ala., recently followed up on its popular traditional wellness program, geared toward healthier living, and put a financial wellness program in place. This month, as part of Financial Literacy Month, it launched a program for bank associates, encouraging them to make use of financial education resources such as online courses, says Evelyn Mitchell, corporate communications manner at Regions Financial. "We also have a personal financial-based scavenger hunt that just kicked off this week, and we automatically deposit 2% of eligible associates' salaries into their 401(k) plan each year."
At Officevibe, a Montreal workplace productivity firm, the goal is direct advice from financial professionals to staffers. "Our accountant meets with us regularly one on one to [teach] more about different options for retirement planning and investing, and recommends ways we can have automatic deductions going towards certain things," says Jacob Shriar, communications director at the firm. "There is so much out there that he knows that most of us don't know, so the education really helps."
Financial wellness programs vary, depending on what employees say they need and what employers believe they need. "Office perks like free coffee and lunch can help employees save money, be more productive and make them feel valued," says Avi Levine, a vice president at Starfunding, a trade finance firm in New York City, which has its own financial wellness program. "Also, employers should promote participation in 401(k) accounts by matching contributions, consistently communicate saving strategies like direct deposits into a savings account and a checking account, versus just having one account for your direct deposit."
Employers can also host financial wellness days by inviting personal finance consultants and professionals to come to the office and speak to their employees, Levine adds.
In the end, financial wellness programs have two goals: Educate employees about their finances and, in doing so, create a happier, more relaxed and productive workforce. "The more financially secure employees feel, the more they can focus on work and their professional duties," Levine says.