5 steps to an effective financial wellness program

Health and wealth are on a path toward convergence — here's how to build a plan that delivers measurable results

Dec 1, 2018 @ 6:00 am

By Brad Arends

Typical Americans get the vast majority of their financial needs taken care of at work. Think about it. They get their income, health, dental, vision, life and disability insurances; health savings accounts; medical and dependent-care flex plans; critical illness, accident and even identity-theft voluntary benefits. And, of course, they get their retirement savings, most often via a 401(k) or 403(b).

The decision support matrix for these benefits is converging. Just think about the complexity of the decisions we are asking people to make every year at benefits enrollment time. These are no longer just benefit questions or decisions, but rather financial planning issues.

The wealth management industry is addressing these issues for business owners and upper management, often referred to as the wealthiest 1% of Americans. But this same industry acknowledges that they have little interest in providing this service for the 99%, whom they openly refer to as "the underserved."

(More:Congress tries to jam through retirement legislation by year-end)

Meanwhile, solutions to address employees' inadequacies when it comes to financial management have ranged from online versions often provided by an employer's 401(k) record keeper, to video classes made available to employees on numerous financial topics. These tend to engage only those who are already financially fit, and the programs often die out after a year or two without improving the financial fitness of the workforce.

Advisers may wonder how to go about building an effective financial wellness program, given these dynamics and the programs' increasing popularity among retirement plan sponsors.

We believe there are five key steps to building a financial wellness program that delivers meaningful results:

1. Set a goal. Conduct a formal workplace financial wellness assessment of your employees, identifying the big issues. This sets a measurable goal for your financial wellness program. We recommend a goal of 75% of employees being on track to maintain their same standard of living during their retirement years as in their working career. Success here dramatically reduces the "hidden liability" of delayed retirements.

(More: Participants' personal debt gains attention)

2. Organization. A key to personal financial fitness is to first "get all your affairs in order." Organizing all assets, liabilities and important legal documents in one place is mission critical. To this end, we give participants our allmymoney financial wellness app, which has daily account aggregation, a secure online document vault, and self-help planners and calculators.

3. Education. This can include an online financial learning center like our intellicents university, which provides a curriculum for employers, their employees and retirees, but it must also involve targeted messaging, onsite topical workshops and webcasts, and an 800 number financial hotline staffed by certified financial planners.

4. Advice. This is what workers want, and it is the missing ingredient in most financial wellness plans. Remember, not long ago nobody wanted to give advice to 401(k) participants, and now most plans do. It is, in fact, considered a best practice as long as it is delivered by a fiduciary. This is the key to employee engagement, and it must include a financial plan for no more than $500 per employee.

Employers have to recognize, however, that their employees will have resulting investment questions and needs. From a fiduciary standpoint, a low-cost robo-adviser — we created one called the intellicents bionic advisor — should be considered in order to meet the fiduciary standard of care.

(More: John Hancock testing wellness programs for long-term-care policyholders)

5. Benchmarking. Employee utilization, satisfaction and behavior change must be monitored annually. The best way to measure an employer's return on investment is to annually benchmark the aggregate retirement readiness rate of its workforce, and the aggregate cost of delayed retirements.

In practice, it takes a combination of people smarts and great technology to pull this off. We partnered with several major financial services organizations that allowed us to private-label their tech for what we were trying to accomplish: workplace financial wellness assessment, organization, online financial learning center, electronic targeted messaging, call center, financial planning, and robo-investment-advice and execution.

I used to consider this just a necessary add-on to our fiduciary investment advisory services to 401(k) plan sponsors and their participants. Now this is truly a separate business line that can be sold as a stand-alone service. Two years ago we did not have a CFP on staff. Today we have five; three years from now we will have at least a dozen.

Health and wealth are converging in the benefits world. These are no longer just benefits decisions but financial planning issues. Financial wellness is the mortar that binds it all together.

Brad Arends is co-founder and CEO of intellicents inc., a financial advisory firm headquartered in Albert Lea, Minn.

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