Improving Financial Wellness Starts With Understanding Participants

Many plan sponsors are building financial wellness programs with an eye on addressing benefits equity for their workforce.

Plan sponsors are exploring the mix of benefits offered to workers like ingredients in a recipe—tasting the mixture, adding spices here and there—hoping to bake the best benefits package possible. Recently, the most popular new ingredients—one can hardly call them a secret—are financial wellness programs to affect day-to-day financial behavior of employees and drive greater long-term participant retirement readiness.

Dawn Food Products Inc. and Rehmann are two of the companies to recognize that employee access to benefits outside of the retirement plan—including health savings accounts, emergency savings programs and student loan debt repayment programs—have a significant and lasting effect on retirement preparedness.

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“Plan sponsors as a whole, their understanding of the need for their employees and themselves to embrace financial wellness has increased over the years,” says Gerald Wernette, principal and director of consultant services at Rehmann, a business consultant and retirement plan advisory firm based in Farmington Hills, Michigan.

Both plan sponsors have addressed greater financial wellness for historically underserved cohorts of their employee population by first developing a greater understanding of the needs of their population.

Recognizing Reality

Key to bolstering participants’ engagement with employee benefits programs intended to bolster worker wellness is understanding what their needs are and remaining flexible, explains Brian Coleman, vice president of total rewards at Dawn Foods.   

“We recognize that we have to have flexible benefits and a flexible approach when it comes to rewards, recognition and [when] you’re looking at how you engage and motivate all of your team members,” Coleman says. “We’re constantly adding programs into the mix to help our team members wherever they’re at, and wherever they want to be [by] meeting them at that point. We constantly look at new ways to save team members money, so that they can save for the future, and then [at] giving them education [on using benefits].”

Employers have paired high-deductible health plans with access to health savings accounts as an example of how plan sponsors can try to alleviate some of workers’ financial challenges, adds Wernette.  

“Some of it is a direct pressure from trying to attract and retain employees: Employees knocking on their door saying, ‘I need more [benefits] because of things like inflation,’” he says. “Some of it is a growing need to take better care of an asset of their organization, i.e. their workforce. So it’s a combination of those things that upped the game over the last few years from the standpoint of employers just seeing a growing need.”


Employers are also looking to drive greater benefits equity with offerings such as discounts for workers’ healthy behaviors, assistance for parents of special-needs children, making telemedicine available and assisting with credit card debt, adds Coleman.

Understanding the Workforce

Despite employers’ increased attention to building employee wellness programs and greater benefits equity, before selecting any it is key to listen to the workforce, says Zara Nanu, CEO and founder of Gapsquare from XpertHR, a provider of pay equity and wage analytics software.

She urges employers to approach building employee wellness with an analysis of their workforce to understand which features outside of the retirement plan can best support their participants’ retirement readiness.

“I go a little bit broader, and I think the main thing employers could do is look at their data and understand that uptake of the benefits and their uptake by gender or by race, ethnicity and other employee characteristics, because that will be very telling,” Nanu says. “Then [I suggest] revisiting education programs around those benefits to address certain populations.”

Employers may also need to address workforce equity in their recruitment policies, before a new hire even walks through the office door on their first day, she adds.

“Some job adverts can be gender-coded, so you can have a job advert that in its language and the way it’s phrased and the way it’s positioned, will appeal more to a man, and you will have language within the job description that will appeal more to a woman,” explains Nanu. “Now you have a lot of gender decoders online and other platforms helping you decode a job description so that you can frame it in a more neutral language. … [In a] conversation I was having [with an asset manager, she said], ‘Is there an opportunity for us to start decoding language around financial well-being and seeing how we can make that more appealing across the board?’”

Plan sponsors building wellness programs and benefits also need to provide education for workers on how to use the benefits, adds Sabina Mehmood, the pay equity leader at Gapsquare. 

“What we’ve seen over the past eight to 12 months [is] a tremendous shift in focus of employees themselves,” she adds. “No. 1, topping the chart, is financial stability and fear of the looming downturn in the economy. Largely in populations of women or underrepresented communities [and] people of color is: not only are they lacking in holistic saving plans long-term; any savings plan that they do have in place, they’re increasingly tapping into that now just to get by, just to pay for health care [and] just to pay for childcare.”

Framing Wellness

Research from Alight Solutions provides a glimpse into the wellbeing tools, services, benefits and educational campaigns that employers have added.

The research found that employers are taking multiple steps to expand diversity, equity and inclusion for their retirement plans and are shifting the focus of their financial wellbeing programs to helping workers grow their assets and achieve financial freedom. 

Alight identified four stages of financial wellbeing:

  • Security: understanding income and expenses, managing debt;
  • Foundation: establishing savings goals, understanding investments and insurance;
  • Growth: maximizing asset growth, understanding investment vehicles; and
  • Freedom: estate planning, understanding Social Security options

Alight’s research found that plan sponsors plan to invest in employee well-being in the following ways in 2023:  62% of employers expect to concentrate investments at the foundation level; 21% at the security stage; 12% on growth; and 5% on the freedom phase. That compares with 2019, when 56% of employers were focused on foundation; 35% answered security; 8% reported focusing on growth; and 1% said freedom, according to the Alight Solutions 2023 Hot Topics in Retirement and Wellbeing report.

Separate retirement and benefits research released last month from Principal Financial Group and Transamerica showed employers are increasingly adding holistic retirement benefits to address workers’ total welfare. 

Research from Lively, “Employee Benefits Pulse Check, How to attract and retain 
 employees in 2023,” found that, because companies are facing a 20% average employee turnover rate, employers are increasing both salaries and benefits, and 84% of employer respondents have increased benefits to attract and retain employers.

At Dawn Foods, “We constantly measure [effectiveness of financial wellness and equity] and look at where we need to go as an organization to help team members, if they’re 18 or 28 or 48 or beyond,” adds Coleman.