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Wellness Programs Add Financial Advice To Improve Employee Health

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Sheena Calliham is all too aware of statistics showing that millennials have less job security and more student debt than their parents.

"Student loan debt is a primary financial stressor and concern for my generation," she says, "and we've also faced a challenging job market."

Calliham is 32, manages healthcare centers in Columbia, S.C, and has a 2-year-old daughter. A few weeks ago, she signed up for a financial wellness program offered by her employer. She says the stress of the debt and the cost of raising a child were affecting many aspects of her life.

"It can be a stressor that I can take home with me," she says, "and that may cause me to take things out on people that I love."

About half of all U.S. employers now offer financial wellness programs, although how they define them varies. Many companies have long offered lectures on topics like retirement. But increasingly, say analysts tracking the trend, employers are tailoring their programs to the worker — more like a personal trainer who works on your budget rather than your waistline.

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

"It really goes much deeper and much broader," he says.

According to Evren Esen, who directs survey programs at the Society for Human Resource Management, more than two-thirds of professionals in human resources say personal finances are having an effect on their employees at work, and that can affect health.

Money problems cause stress, which can lead to bigger health insurance bills for an employer. And if an employee's car breaks down and they can't afford to fix it, that causes unexpected absences. Studies show that a firm's health costs and absenteeism are both likely to decrease when the company starts a financial wellness program — though how big a difference it makes can vary and be hard to quantify.

There are still challenges, Esen says. 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 – even though their privacy is, and must be, protected.

However, she says, for those workers who do participate, employers see real benefits.

"They tend to be more loyal and they're more likely to stick with the company," Esen says. "And they're more likely to give back to the company."

These programs, which started out with counseling regarding retirement benefits, expanded during and after the lean years of the Great Recession, says Liz Davidson, founder of Financial Finesse, a firm that manages financial wellness programs for employers.

"Financial wellness becomes more attractive when economic times are hard," she says, "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?' "

If the social safety net weakens, financial wellness is likely to become all the more important, Davidson says. "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."

That sort of support from an employer can be especially important for workers in lower income brackets, who are less likely to be able to afford financial planning.

"The people that need it the most don't get it through traditional channels," Davidson says. "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."

Calliham, the healthcare manager, says she now strongly encourages her colleagues to use the service. Just having a plan to manage her finances, she says, has made a huge difference in her attitude.

"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," says Calliham. "I feel like I'm more in control, and they have definitely helped me get there."

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