Many employees continue to struggle with competing financial priorities, prompting 401(k) providers to create solutions through financial wellness programs, but it will require more than educational content, a new report advises.

According to research from Cerulli Associates, educational content has value and serves as a building block to basic financial literacy, but the success of a financial wellness program will be contingent on the ability to drive participant actions.

In its report, “U.S. Retirement End-Investor 2019: Driving Participant Outcomes with Financial Wellness Programs,” the firm explains that recordkeepers and retirement plan advisors observe that a driving force behind their decision to create a financial wellness program or enhance their current offering is client demand. 

“Plan sponsors have taken note –nearly one-third (32%) identify improving the financial wellness of employees as a top priority for their 401(k) plan,” states Dan Cook, a research analyst at Cerulli. This sentiment highlights the need for solutions that help address participants’ holistic financial needs, beyond just retirement savings, Cook observes.

Measurement of success and return on investment (ROI) for plan sponsors is often discussed as an impediment to the adoption and effective implementation of financial wellness programs, the report emphasizes. “Plan sponsors have a broad range of goals for financial wellness programs,” says Cook. But while some goals are straightforward to measure, others are more nebulous, he observes.  

For example, goals such as improving employees’ retirement readiness (27%) are clear-cut. With the help of their recordkeeper, plan sponsors can track participants’ 401(k) plan contribution rates and investment allocations over time and monitor for improvements. Other goals – such as improving financial literacy (30%), increasing workplace productivity (20%) and decreasing employee stress (14%) – are more imprecise and difficult to directly attribute to a financial wellness initiative, the report explains.


To overcome the ROI hurdle and connect financial wellness components to workplace outcomes, plan providers should structure participant engagements as action-oriented rather than education-oriented, Cerulli advises.  

“Individuals must be triggered to enact changes that impact their financial lives in a positive way,” explains Cook. “As such, providers must consistently collect data to identify engagement strategies that resonate most with specific groups and craft digital experiences through which a participant’s ‘next-best action’ is only one or two clicks away.”

As to the greatest sources of financial stress, the factors vary noticeably when segmenting plan participant data by age range, the report explains. Not surprisingly, participants under age 40 are more concerned about student loan debt, while stress over retirement savings adequacy peaks between ages 30 and 49. Beyond age 50, participants most frequently select health expenses as a primary source of financial stress.

Read the rest of the article at National Association of Plan Advisors