Debt, high monthly bills and rising prices have combined to create a difficult environment for U.S. workers, meaning employers may need to refocus their wellness benefit efforts, according to speakers at a Feb. 7 virtual event hosted by the Employee Benefits Research Institute.
EBRI’s event centered on the results of the organization’s recent 2022 Workplace Wellness Survey, which the nonprofit conducted with Greenwald Research. The results showed employees have been impacted on several fronts; 60% said they were at least moderately concerned about their financial well-being, while 50% and 48% said the same about their emotional and physical well-being, respectively.
The survey results also reflect the “doom and gloom” felt by U.S. workers in the face of a complex web of challenges, said Kerry Sette, VP, head of consumer insights and research at Voya Financial. “It definitely highlights how many working Americans really do need a respite from all that’s been happening in the world, especially on an economic front.”
Signs of distress abound. For example, an American Staffing Association survey published in December found that 58% of adults were considering getting a second job to help cover expenses within the next year. EBRI’s survey honed in on the topic of debt: 80% of respondents said they had a problematic level of debt, up from 65% in 2021, and 78% of this contingent cited credit card debt as an issue.
“People are going into debt and also the worst kind of debt,” Sette said. “We’re seeing top concerns are really around covering monthly expenses — mortgage, rent, groceries and utilities — as well as being able to retire.”
Employers have a role, but what can be done?
EBRI’s survey found that most employees said they believed employers have a responsibility to ensure that they are mentally, emotionally, physically and financially healthy, and nearly a third said they believed that employer efforts to help manage their well-being grew in the past year. But fewer than half rated employer efforts to improve either of these well-being areas as “excellent” or “very good,” EBRI said.
Emergency savings is one area employers have an opportunity to address, Sette said. While 52% of respondents to EBRI’s survey said they had enough savings to handle an emergency or sudden, large expense, fewer than half said they felt prepared to handle an unexpected expense of $5,000 or more.
Additionally, 60% of respondents said that their retirement plan savings were the “only significant emergency savings that they have,” EBRI said.
Employers have the opportunity to enhance financial literacy efforts, too. A 2022 Morgan Stanley survey found that four in five employees said they thought their employers should help them understand how to maximize their benefits, and 90% said financial benefits that targeted their needs would cause them to feel more invested at work. In a recent Vestwell survey, 9 in 10 employees said their employers should be involved in their retirement education.
Many employees understand the importance of basic health and retirement benefits, but they may overlook voluntary and supplemental benefits that could improve their financial and overall well-being, Sette said. “This is definitely an opportunity for employers as well as their providers to help their employees understand which benefits would benefit them and their families.”
Mental health continues to prove a top trend for employee benefits programs entering 2023. Sette said that employers’ mental health and emotional well-being outreach efforts should particularly target younger workers whose lives have been especially impacted by pandemic-induced disruption.
Case study: Outreach to LGBTQ employees
EBRI found that LGBTQ workers were less likely than non-LGBTQ workers to be satisfied with their job, benefits and paid leave, said Paul Fronstin, director, health benefits research at the nonprofit. LGBTQ workers were also more likely than non-LGBTQ workers to give lower ratings to employers’ efforts to improve financial well-being, emotional well-being, mental health and physical well-being and health.
Though a multitude of factors influence this sentiment, the inability to be one’s authentic self at work can be particularly impactful to LGBTQ professionals, according to George Schein, director of the Advanced Consulting Group at Nationwide Retirement Institute.
Schein said the “personal minefields of employee-employee interactions” LGBTQ workers face could mean that such workers switch jobs more often than other workers, or that they are not hired or promoted at the same rate as other workers.
“The result of that isn’t only that we are less likely to be eligible for some of these benefits, but we’re also less likely to be happy with our workplace a lot of time,” Schein said. “It also can lead to limits on our income,” he added, which can result in fewer retirement savings over time.
Schein pointed to two benefits areas that could particularly benefit LGBTQ employees. The first, in-plan guarantees, are annuitized insurance products that guarantee a regular payout or income source in retirement. These products sit within defined contribution plans and were the number one most valuable improvement to retirement savings plans cited by LGBTQ employees in a June 2022 EBRI survey.
Long-term care was the second area highlighted by Schein, who said that LGBTQ workers may lack family or close contacts who can provide care in old age. “They are two to three times more likely to live alone,” Schein added. “Although we have had the right to marry since 2015 nationwide, the majority of LGBTQ individuals are not married. And so the question becomes, who’s going to take care of us as we age if it’s not our children?”