Smart messaging: Engaging employees in financial wellness.

November 2018 

E Brand Connect

Fail to prepare, prepare to fail. It may be a cliché, but it is true. And the adage is becoming increasingly relevant to financial planning.

Research by Charles Schwab1 of 1,000 Americans found planners are more likely to save, feel financially stable, and effectively manage debt. These planners are more likely to stay engaged with their investments, be aware of the fees they are paying, and have confidence about reaching their goals.

For the non-planners caught amid disengagement and high levels of debt and low levels of saving, there were clear barriers prohibiting them from taking control of their finances. The Charles Schwab survey1 found 20% of non-planners said they didn’t know how to make a plan, while 16% said they wouldn’t be able to stick to a plan.

This is where workplace financial wellness programs can make a real difference, both in equipping and engaging employees.

“We believe that for many Americans, the road to financial wellness begins at work,” says Catherine Golladay, Chief Operating Officer, Schwab Retirement Plan Services “More than just a pay check, people often view their employer as a trusted resource for information and guidance.”

Incentives and a multi-pronged approach for maximum engagement.

The obstacle, say experts, is that workplace benefits, especially retirement plans, struggle with a reputation for being dull and confusing.

“It’s difficult to get employees’ attention when they have so many competing priorities, and when they are overloaded with information,” says Elizabeth Anathan, Vice President, Marketing & Communications at Callan, a San Francisco based retirement consulting practice. “Worse still,” she says, “employers have to keep people’s attention on something that might be confusing, complex, or boring to them.”

Although this is true, it does not make the task impossible. “It takes creativity, commitment, time and effort to communicate effectively,” says Annette Grabow, Retirement Plans Program Manager at Sonepar USA, a business distributor of safety tools, products and solutions.

“Employees are motivated when there’s something in it for them,” says Ms. Golladay, “whether it’s earning points in a holistic wellness program, recognition in a company-wide competition, or real money in a company savings plan.”

For example, to engage Sonepar’s workforce of more than 5,000 employees spread across multiple states, Ms. Grabow’s team worked with Schwab Retirement Plan Services, their 401(k) provider, to create a multi-pronged benefits program designed to inspire action. The strategy includes multi-media financial wellness education and individual phone consultations. They supplement existing education programs by incentivizing associates to participate in financial wellness challenges, earning them points redeemable on items at their company store.

As for getting the word out, Ms. Grabow says it is a mistake to depend on only one or two communication methods. “Because most workforces are diverse, repetition in different formats is your ally.”

Gather the troops.

To effectively reinforce messages about the importance and value of wellness programs, Ms. Golladay says leaders must be supportive. “When employers act as an advocate for making beneficial programs visible to employees, they can use the trust they have established with employers to affect change.”

Ms. Grabow agrees that this can be an effective tactic. For maximum impact of Sonepar’s wellness programme, she enlisted resources across the organization, including training, web developers, HR leaders and shared services team members—even the Sonepar USA President and CEO.

Simplification is key…

Perhaps one of the most effective ways to keep employees connected with workplace benefits is to make the process simple and even fun.

Ms. Anathan suggests going back to basics with benefits communication. Employees react positively when complex and seemingly irrelevant benefits are conveyed clearly, helping them understand how an action impacts their overall financial wellness.

Timing also matters, says Ms. Grabow. “We work carefully to deliver a steady stream of messages and financial wellness challenges throughout each year. We try to avoid too much communication, especially when our benefits group is communicating something big. It’s a competition for attention and we don’t want to overwhelm our associates.”

…and relevance is essential.

“Employers cannot take a ‘If you build it they will come’ approach to financial wellness”, says Ms. Golladay. “People won’t engage unless the experience resonates with them.”

Ms. Grabow believes that an effective, relevant wellness strategy relies on gathering workforce data. She says: “If you don’t know who makes up your workforce, you can’t know how to talk about what’s important to them.”

Ms. Anathan adds: “Targeting can make a lot of sense. Why tell some who is age 30 that they can contribute catch up amounts when they turn 50? It makes more sense to focus on what’s top of mind.”

At Sonepar, new means of communication are often tested, from emails to simple, clean postcards. These methods are designed to match the needs and specific issues of targeted groups.

“This is the toughest aspect and something we are still developing,” she says.

Cost considerations.

Of course with increased sophistication there may be increased costs. Many elements of communication and education require resources to produce, one way or another.

Unfortunately, the impact of financial wellness is difficult to measure, which challenges employers when appealing to upper management for support.

Lori Lucas, President and CEO of the Employee Benefit Research Institute in Washington, DC, is sympathetic to these concerns. She understands that employers often cite available budget and resources as a barrier to success. However, “there is a dearth of solid data to make the business case,” Ms. Lucas says. “It can come down to explaining the return on investment that will come from an effective program.”

She adds that "successful" employee engagement might have once been considered low opt out rates when employees are automatically enrolled in the 401(k) plan, but “now many employers consider ‘success’ to be that workers are not only enrolled in the 401(k) plan, but that the result is greater overall financial stability, as exhibited by low levels of debt outside the plan, for example.”

And in the end, it has been proven that financially healthy and cared for employees are more loyal and more productive in the workplace—a goal that all employers endeavour to achieve.


Without effective engagement, workplace benefits may be underused and underappreciated and employees can struggle to engage.

A financial wellness strategy that encourages employees to plan and manage their money effectively will likely benefit both the individual’s well being and the business’ bottom line.


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