Financial Wellness Programs Can Carry a Stigma

Employees want help with overall financial wellness, but bad vibes could prevent them from participating in employer programs.

Resources that help employees manage their finances or plan for their financial futures have wide appeal and great potential for use among those who don’t currently have access, a survey finds.

Seven in 10 employees surveyed whose company does not currently offer such resources say they would be very or somewhat likely to take advantage of resources to help them plan for their financial future, and three in five (60%) say they’d be very or somewhat likely to use resources that would help them manage their personal finances if they were available.

However, the survey from Jellyvision, a provider of interactive software to help employees with benefits and financial decisions, reveals many employees have negative views of employer financial wellness programs.

“We had a hunch there might be a stigma [associated with these programs],” says Bob Armour, chief marketing officer (CMO) at Jellyvision in Chicago. He tells PLANSPONSOR the stigma comes from the thought that attending financial wellness classes might indicate to others that one is not financially fit.

Justyn Harkin, a benefits communications specialist at Jellyvision who helped field the survey, added that, based on the company’s experience with employee benefits and things employees say are barriers during open enrollment, he had a feeling there would be barriers to participating in financial wellness programs. “We specifically asked about a stigma because we know [employees] don’t like sharing health care needs with coworkers and employers, and we wanted to see if that applied to financial needs.”

NEXT: Stigma, language turn-offs and privacy concerns, oh my.

Thirty-six percent of employees surveyed by Jellyvision say there is at least a little stigma associated with the programs, and about one in four (26%) of those employees whose companies offer financial wellness programs believe that using the program resources will make them look “bad.”

Those who feel a great deal of financial stress (45%), those who are primarily responsible for their household finances (40%), and younger adults (43%, ages 18 to 34) are especially likely to say there is at least a little stigma associated with the programs.

In addition, the survey found certain language used in financial wellness programs can cause employees to disengage. The phrases most likely to cause an employee to tune out are “spending habits” (34%), “living within your means” (27%) and “estate planning” (22%). On the flip side, phrases that are likely to cause an employee to take action include “planning for retirement” (59%), “planning for your financial future” (50%) and “maximizing your savings” (50%).  

“Uncomfortable, scolding-sounding terms turn people off , and planning terms make people perk up, so using the right kind of language is important,” Armour says. He adds that using jargon-free communication also makes a program more approachable.

Fifty-six percent of employees whose company offers a financial wellness program say they wished the financial resources offered by their companies used friendlier language, and 36% say their companies’ programs are intimidating to use.

A perceived lack of privacy could also be a barrier to financial wellness program participation. Although nearly eight in 10 (78%) employees whose company offers a financial wellness program say they trust their employers to keep their financial concerns private, six in 10 (60%) don’t want their coworkers to know about their financial wellness program activity, and nearly half (45%) don’t want their companies to know if they’re taking advantage of the available offerings.

NEXT: Considerations for financial wellness program offerings.

Perhaps due to noted concerns over privacy or stigma, more employees would prefer to receive financial wellness information from a neutral third party than from their own employer (44% vs. 26%; 30% have no preference). When looking at employees who don’t currently have access to company-provided financial wellness programs, the preference for third-party providers increases (61% vs. 13%; 26% have no preference).

In addition, 49% of employees would prefer to participate in a financial wellness information session online, 42% via a one-on-one in-person meeting, and 30% via an in-person group presentation.

“I don’t think there should be an end to big education meetings, but there should be a time allotted afterwards for folks to speak with someone in private, and it needs to be made clear that their information will be kept private,” Armour says.

Harkin agrees. “Don’t get rid of large meetings, some employees trust them,” he says. “But be mindful in these sessions that an aspirational framework will work better than something that is corrective or remedial. The message has to be very positive, and since privacy is really important, plan sponsors and advisers can share general knowledge in the meeting but direct employees to other resources that will help them personalize information.”

According to Armour, marketing is a big part of the solution to erasing any stigma or fears associated with participating in financial wellness programs; plan sponsors need to market their programs in a way that conveys that reaching out about financial assistance is a sign of intelligence and not a sign of weakness. He suggests that having leaders in the company participate in programs and sessions will potentially take some of the stigma off. “Even if leaders are not in financial stress, they should support [financial wellness programs] to show it is okay to be there.”

Armour adds that employers should make private offerings such as online tools available, and make sure employees know about them and can use them when they feel comfortable. Jellyvision has launched a product that is online, approachable, friendly and private. Called Alex,, it lets employees highlight, in their own way, the area in which they think they need the most work, directing them to company resources that will help.

Harkin notes that, for younger adults, the desire for financial wellness help is significantly higher than that from older workers. “This is an opportunity for employers to meet expectations for employees,” he says.

Jellyvision’s survey report may be downloaded from here.