Behavioral Science-Backed Strategies for Financial Wellness Engagement

Beth Brockland, with Financial Health Network, shares three ways to help employees best use their financial wellness benefits.

Over the past year, employees have experienced tremendous changes to how and where they work. Many are now being asked to pivot again, as COVID-19 restrictions are eased and more workplaces transition to a hybrid work model or return to the office. With the future still uncertain due to emerging variants of the virus and upended workplace norms, employees are experiencing significant mental and emotional stress.

Financial stress is rampant, too, especially for Black and Latinx workers, women and those classified as essential workers. Overall, 86% of employees in a MetLife study say finances are a top source of stress for them now and in the future.

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The good news is that employers are well-positioned to meet this moment. Employee financial wellness programs have proliferated in workplaces in the past decade, and 85% of employers say they plan to spend the same amount or more on financial wellness benefits over the next two years because of the pandemic, according to a Financial Health Network study.

Yet offering financial wellness benefits doesn’t help if employees don’t know about them or can’t use them. This is especially true now and into the future, as the workplace becomes increasingly decentralized and human resource (HR) leaders have fewer face-to-face interactions with employees.

With this in mind, the Financial Health Network uncovered three promising strategies from behavioral science and human-centered design that HR leaders can use to promote employee engagement with financial wellness benefits: 

Simplify. Benefits are often difficult to understand, and employees can experience choice overload when faced with complex benefits decisions. Navigating benefits is often even more challenging for lower-wage employees, who are less likely to have access to a computer or time to learn about benefits during the workday.

As one employee we interviewed explained, “During onboarding, you want to make the best decision, but you don’t really know how. If you’re rushed, you’re not going to make the best decisions.” Reduce the number of options employees have to consider and make use of proven behavioral design features such as automation and defaults to make benefits decisions less overwhelming.

Motivate. Some employees might not see the value their benefits can offer. This might be especially true for low-wage employees, particularly those who struggle to pay bills. Even savings benefits such as defined contribution (DC) retirement plans and health savings accounts (HSAs) can be seen as risky because they limit people’s flexibility and ability to deal with unforeseen expenses. Use personas and examples to demonstrate how the benefit is meeting needs and providing value for others like them. Make sure your communications reflect diversity consistently across design, messaging and activities, including but going beyond representations of class, race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation and ability to reflect a diverse range of needs and life stages.

Another example of using behaviorally informed tactics to encourage uptake of financial wellness benefits is implementing active choice messaging. In one recent study, we found that simply asking employees to choose a savings goal or to indicate “I don’t want to save right now” when onboarding onto a financial wellness app increased the number of users who saved via automatic paycheck withdrawals by 31% after eight months.

Support. For some employees, barriers related to language, culture and accessibility can make it challenging to access the benefits available to them. As one employee told us: “[Benefits are] like if you went to a really cool restaurant, but you didn’t see anybody else around and couldn’t see what the dishes looked like. And they give you a big menu in another language with no pictures on it. It makes you feel uncomfortable ordering.” Don’t leave employees struggling to access benefits information; make it clear where they can go with questions or if they need help.

Trust can also be an issue. When employees perceive a lack of management support for financial health benefits, they may be less likely to use them. Clear the air in your benefits communications: acknowledge where things aren’t easy and show that your goal as an employer is to help employees effectively use their benefits. This could include regularly reminding employees about unused benefits or providing information about how to get more out of benefits such as HSAs, in concrete dollar terms. 

As the workplace evolves, employers are looking for new and creative ways to encourage usage of financial wellness benefits. With the strategies outlined above, employees will benefit from lower stress and greater productivity—a win-win for employees and employers.


As the Vice President, Workplace Solutions, at the Financial Health Network, Beth Brockland designs research and tools to help employers assess and improve the financial health of their workforce. With her career background focused on expanding opportunities for underserved communities, Brockland is excited about the role that employers can play in helping employees who are financially struggling improve their financial health.

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 Inc. (ISS) or its affiliates.