By Chris Taylor
NEW YORK (Reuters) – When companies think about the financial health of their employees, they might consider basic issues like salary, retirement benefits, and health coverage.
All good—but not good enough.
These days, true “financial wellness” gets into broader issues like planning help, student debt, tuition reimbursement, and dozens of other potential stress points.
As head of financial wellness at Morgan Stanley, Krystal Barker Buissereth is steering companies toward a more holistic understanding of where workers might be hurting—and how a few financial lifelines can help people in trouble while also boosting an employer’s talent attraction and retention efforts.
She spoke with Reuters about the ways benefits can change employees’ lives.
How do you define financial wellness, exactly?
Helping individuals put pen to paper on what matters to them. What is getting in the way of achieving their financial goals, and how do you figure out a plan to tackle that?
Most people don’t even have a financial plan, so it’s like playing a game of darts without a dartboard.
In this age of COVID and the Great Resignation, people need help beyond just retirement. It could be helping them with short-term needs like budgeting. It could be helping them set up emergency savings in case they have a healthcare crisis. It could be help with paying down student debt. Financial wellness is all-encompassing.
“If my company is looking to stand out in a competitive workplace, benefits can be that differentiating factor. It’s one of the best tools in your arsenal,” says head of financial wellness at Morgan Stanley, Krystal Barker Buissereth.
One of the biggest trends right now seems to be helping with employee student loans. Why?
The fastest-growing portion of household debt is student debt. Why that is so concerning is that it gets in the way of planning for other financial milestones. If I’m stressed out about student debt, that may delay my retirement savings. So companies are looking to alleviate some of that stress, either with one-on-one coaching, or direct contributions, or both.
Can this also be seen as a diversity issue?
Diversity and inclusion is part of this because if you look at people with the most outstanding debt, it is often women and underrepresented minorities. If you are a company looking to attract a diverse workforce, you want to make sure your benefits are helping the most vulnerable.
Some companies like Target are grabbing headlines for tuition benefits?
Almost 50 percent of companies have some sort of tuition reimbursement or professional development program, but what we are seeing more of now is full tuition coverage. Competition for talent is very high, and if my company is looking to stand out in a competitive workplace, benefits can be that differentiating factor. It’s one of the best tools in your arsenal.
I imagine you have seen a lot of data, so how are people doing right now financially?
People have absolutely been rattled. What COVID highlighted is that certain populations have been disproportionately affected more than others. But no matter where you are on the continuum, this period has been a wake-up call. One stat found that 65 percent of households have lost some income. When you ask people what is causing them stress, the number one answer is financial concerns—more than health, or work, or family.
There is upward pressure on wages, so will that help with the financial wellness picture?
An extra boost in salary can go a long way, especially for those just starting out, but it’s just one piece of the equation in the broader overall picture.
“What COVID highlighted is that certain populations have been disproportionately affected more than others. But no matter where you are on the continuum, this period has been a wake-up call.”
There are a lot of changes happening in this arena, so what’s next?
There is no one-size-fits-all program, so we do anticipate more ‘cafeteria’-style plans, with a menu of different benefits that employees could pick and choose from. That’s the gold standard, but many companies haven’t even started with the first items on the menu. They have a retirement benefit, and that’s about it.
Employees are suffering, they need help, and what we envision is that companies are going to start filling in more financial gaps.
What financial lessons are we going to take away from the last couple of years?
Just like 2008-2009, this has been an eye-opener for many of us. We might not have the financial buffer that we thought we did. For employers, they have learned that attracting and retaining talent is not just about salary. Their benefits packages need to be tied to their goals and their (human resources) objectives, so that employees can bring their best selves to work.
(Editing by Lauren Young and David Gregorio)