Adviser Op-Ed: The Merits of a Retirement and Benefits Task Force

June 16, 2021


Even as the coronavirus pandemic swept through the United States, it aggravated another sort of epidemic that has grown to troubling proportions: the failing financial health of many Americans.

Addressing the “other epidemic” should be a priority as employers reset their organizations for a post-pandemic environment. The best cures will come when their retirement plan advisers and employee benefits specialists team up for the effort.

Financial stress has been an ongoing issue for Americans, but the problem clearly expanded during the pandemic. A report published last year by John Hancock, its “2020 Financial Stress Survey,” found that 62% of surveyed workers were experiencing moderate or extreme financial stress, compared with 39% before the pandemic. One in four workers was forced to dig into savings to get by.

The causes of financial stress are well-documented. One of the most important sources is the overwhelming burden of student loan debt, now at $1.7 trillion and a drag on some 44 million Americans, according to the U.S. Federal Reserve. Credit card debt and other forms of debt also cause substantial concern.

Financial stress costs employers as much as it costs their people. The John Hancock survey estimates a given employee can lose some 47 hours of productivity per year due to absenteeism and the at-work distractions caused by serious financial worries. Further, it hinders some employees’ ability to save, particularly for retirement.

Overall, retirement readiness remains a persistent problem for plan sponsors, given the greater costs associated with supporting older employers who can’t afford to retire. It’s not just the pay differential between older employees and new entrants to the job market, but the greater health care liability and workers’ compensation costs. There also are more intangible costs in terms of lost opportunities when fewer job openings exist to bring in the next generations of workers.

The poor financial health of American workers is not a simple matter. The causes and their impacts are all interconnected, which makes the case for retirement and employee benefits professionals to combine their best thinking to devise a cure that benefits everyone. Shared imperatives should be the basis of a smart financial wellness strategy.

Here’s how such a task force can start tackling the issues.

First, determine the scope and nature of employees’ financial pressures. It starts with identifying specific needs of employee segments, and getting more granular than conventional wisdom on, say, who owns student debt. Personal analysis provides a deeper perspective, based on factors such as life and career stage, education, lifestyle and goals. Look at the voluntary benefits lineup and what’s being used by whom. Surveys can help. The more you dig, the better the insights for creating a suite of solutions.

To this end, be aware of the specific financial impacts of the pandemic on employees. More than half of Millennials and Generation X employees in the 2021 “PwC Employee Financial Wellness Survey,” for example, expected to use their retirement plan funds for non-retirement expenses. Providing financial guidance is an enormous common need. Over 90% of people responding to the John Hancock survey said financial guidance would help them even more than a larger employer contribution to their retirement plan.

Second, audit the current plans to make sure needed benefits aren’t hidden from view. Legal insurance and financial resources are often part of retirement plans, voluntary benefits and employee assistance programs (EAPs). These and other financial supports may get more traction if they are repackaged under an existing and coherent financial wellness plan—and if they are promoted. At the same time, it’s not necessary to break the bank providing benefits under the plan. In fact, most voluntary benefits aren’t funded by employers. Just offering them under the employer umbrella helps. And don’t forget the role of tax breaks. An employer’s contribution to employees’ student loan payments is tax-free up to $5,250.

Third and finally, communicate, communicate, communicate. This is the key to any successful benefits program, and the same is true for one focused on financial wellness. Messaging should be driven out in relevant channels, whether that’s email or voicemail campaigns or even on a specific features website where employees can explore the solutions being offered. It’s also worth devising an engagement strategy. Any incentive can be built into it, such as a gift card or a bigger grand prize, to encourage enrollment.

Everyone benefits when employees have the necessary tools to gain command over financial basics, whether that’s setting goals or budgets, setting financial priorities or paying off debt. A financial wellness plan that reflects the thinking and resources contributed by retirement and employee benefits experts will go a long way toward addressing a longstanding problem.

About the authors:

Daniel Bryant is the president of retirement and private wealth for Sheridan Road Financial, a division of Hub International.

Heather Garbers is a vice president of voluntary benefits and technology for Hub International, where she is responsible for driving voluntary benefits sales and strategy.

Editor’s note:

This feature is to provide general information only, does not constitute legal or tax advice, and cannot be used or substituted for legal or tax advice. Any opinions of the author do not necessarily reflect the stance of Institutional Shareholder Services or its affiliates.