Wellness Programs Add Financial Advice To Improve Employee Health : Shots - Health News Using counseling about personal finances to reduce the stress and strain workers feel can shave a company's health costs and cut absenteeism, research suggests.

Wellness Programs Add Financial Advice To Improve Employee Health

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More employers are including advice as part of their overall benefits. Programs that started out as an explanation of retirement benefits are now expanding into personal finance help. NPR's Yuki Noguchi explains why companies are investing more to support workers with money concerns.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Sheena Calliham knows the statistics that show the millennial generation has less job security and more student debt.

SHEENA CALLIHAM: Student loan debt is a primary financial stressor and concern for my generation, and we've also faced a challenging job market.

NOGUCHI: She's 32, manages health care centers in Columbia, S.C., and has a 2-year-old daughter. A few weeks ago, she signed up for what's known as a financial wellness program, offered by her employer. She says the stress of the debt and the cost of raising a child was affecting many aspects of her life.

CALLIHAM: It can be a stressor that I take home with me, that may cause me to take things out on people that I love.

NOGUCHI: About half of employers offer financial wellness programs, although how they define them varies. Many companies have long offered lectures on topics like retirement. But these days, experts say employers are tailoring their programs to the worker - more like a personal trainer who works on your budget rather than your waistline.

Rob Austin is director of retirement research at consulting firm Aon Hewitt. He says most large companies are expanding their financial wellness programs this year and says employers realize one-on-one counseling is a far more effective way to reach people and address their particular concerns.

ROB AUSTIN: It really goes much deeper and much broader.

NOGUCHI: Evren Esen directs survey programs at the Society for Human Resource Management.

EVREN ESEN: Over two-thirds of HR professionals said that employee personal finances are impacting their employees at work.

NOGUCHI: Money problems cause stress, which can lead to health problems and bigger insurance bills for an employer. If an employee's car breaks down and they can't afford to fix it that causes unexpected absences. And experts say studies show both health costs and absenteeism decrease when a company starts a financial wellness program, though how big a difference it makes can be hard to quantify. Esen says there are challenges. The benefit isn't cheap, and often participation is low. It can also be hard to get employees to open up about their finances at the workplace, though their privacy is, and must be, protected. However, she says, for those workers who do participate, employers see big intangible benefits.

ESEN: They tend to be more loyal and they're more likely to stick with the company and more likely to give back to the company.

NOGUCHI: Liz Davidson is founder of Financial Finesse, a firm that manages financial wellness programs for employers. She says these programs expanded during and after the lean years of the Great Recession.

LIZ DAVIDSON: Financial wellness, actually, I think, becomes more attractive when economic times are hard because if you're going to cut someone's pay or suspend their raise or cut their match into their retirement plan, that puts pressure on them to figure out, how do I navigate this and how do I make the best of this situation?

NOGUCHI: Davidson says if the social safety net weakens, financial wellness will become all the more important.

DAVIDSON: We're not necessarily going to have the corporate or government support we used to have, and financial self-sufficiency is going to become more of a necessity.

NOGUCHI: Especially, she says, for those in lower-income brackets who are less likely to afford financial planning.

DAVIDSON: The people that need this the most don't get it through traditional channels. So with the model where it goes through the employer, they have access, free of charge, to sit down with a certified financial planner and work through whatever their issue is.

NOGUCHI: Calliham, the health care manager, says she now vocally encourages her colleagues to use the service. She says having a plan to manage her finances has made a huge difference in her attitude.

CALLIHAM: I definitely - day-to-day, as a mother, as a manager, as an employee, as a wife - I definitely feel like I have my head on straighter and I feel like I'm more in control. And they have definitely helped me get there.

NOGUCHI: Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington.

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