Sector Report: Financial Wellness Plan Fatigue

By Patty Kujawa

Nov. 20, 2019

BJC HealthCare launched a brand new financial wellness program for its 32,000 employees in early 2018, only to have the provider pull the product at the end of the year because of low take-up rates.

Conceptually, BJC thought the program was going to make a big difference for employees with financial issues, said John Higdon, manager of BJC’s retirement plans. Employees could log into their devices and choose from a host of vendors on one platform and get help with their particular money issue.

“We thought it was a worthwhile product,” Higdon said. “But we experienced what a lot of other clients experienced: For whatever reason, people didn’t do anything beyond registering.”

Today, the St. Louis-based nonprofit health care company is in the final stages of contracting with a new financial wellness provider. Higdon said the provider marketplace is even more confusing today than it was when they did their first search a couple of years ago. BJC is working with Shortlister, a Park Ridge, Illinois-based consulting firm that helps clients find service providers in the wellness, HR technology and benefits sectors.

Also Read the 2018 Sector Report on Financial Wellness: What Ails Financial Wellness Plans

“If you are trying to figure this out on your own, it doesn’t seem like that is an effective way to narrow the field,” Higdon said. “It does seem like there are more and more organizations offering financial wellness products.”

Higdon is right. In its “Workplace Wellness Trends Report,” Shortlister reported that the vendor fatigue HR buyers are experiencing is a result of the rampant run of providers entering the space. Financial wellness is ballooning to include myriad point solutions including student loan services, on-demand pay apps, investment advisory services and budgeting tools.

“Today’s HR buyer is inundated with options,” said Tom Ciccotti, Shortlister’s co-founder and executive vice president. “It is a vast and rapidly growing landscape and unfortunately, the responsibility for figuring this out all rests on the employer.”

The number of providers is growing because the demand is definitely there, experts agreed. Bank of America’s “Workplace Benefits Report” showed that more than twice as many companies are offering workplace financial wellness solutions today compared to four years ago.

Also Read the 2017 Sector Report on Financial Wellness

Employers are scrambling because workers are feeling more stressed than ever before, said Aaron Harding, managing director at PwC. Despite a strong economy and low unemployment, 59 percent of respondents to PwC’s 2019 “Employee Financial Wellness Survey” said financial issues cause them more stress than any other life stressor combined. Only 40 percent cited financial stress in 2018.

The fear of a recession and issues like trade wars with China are causing a lot of uncertainty, Harding said. In addition, not as many employees felt the 2017 tax cut benefits as predicted.

“When we hear the economy is great, but be on the lookout for a recession or something about the trade war with China, it makes people worry about their financial situation,” he said.

PwC’s report added that employee financial stress is rising because many employer programs are still failing at addressing the key financial challenges employees have today.

Growing Pains

Even though financial wellness has been around for more than a decade, the term is still not well-defined, experts agree. Because of this, many plan sponsors think their 401(k) plan or employee assistance program qualify as financial wellness benefits, Harding said.

In addition, financial wellness has no single definition, Harding said. Some providers use the term financial well-being, which is often used as a broad term to include health and wealth. The PwC survey showed that respondents had six definitions for the term. A third said financial wellness meant not being stressed about finances. Only 4 percent said the term meant being able to retire when they wanted.

Employers realize that one financial wellness provider isn’t going to address all issues, but it is difficult for employers to get all the niche providers they need on one platform, Ciccotti said. In Shortlister’s survey, 37 percent of respondents believe point solutions will help improve the effectiveness of corporate well-being programs overall.

Offering multiple solutions to a workforce can bring a lot of communication and integration issues, so many employers are looking to use hub platforms that are preloaded with a menu of options for the user. While the hub option can cover a lot of issues, it may not cover all that a particular workforce needs, Ciccotti said.

“Any time you have an area that is young like this, you are going to see some growing pains,” said BJC’s Higdon.

Need Advice? Ask Your Population

Ciccotti and Harding agreed that employers should go to the source — their employees — to determine the financial wellness needs of their workforce. From there, employers should create a priority list that pushes the greatest needs of the population to the front lines.

Ciccotti said companies don’t have to address all the needs simultaneously. In fact, offering one benefit, seeing its results, then going back to the list and offering the next one may build a lot of loyalty with a workforce.

“Nothing is more of a positive reinforcement to an employee than to see an employer listen and act,” Ciccotti said.

Harding added that employers could offer a program more heavily to a division of the population that needs more financial tools compared to other segments.

Higdon said his committee did not ask employees about their financial needs. They thought it would be a waste of time because they didn’t think people would tell the truth about their financial situation.

“We are confident that we are not so unique that our population doesn’t suffer from general financial issues,” Higdon said. “A lot of employees are going to face at least one area these vendors can help them with.”


Patty Kujawa is a freelance writer based in Milwaukee.

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