Checking Out the Deets of Financial Wellness Plans

(Part 2 of 2)

What Is Financial Wellness?

Okay, that first post took us on a bit of a journey, but we’re now ready to tackle financial wellness.

In the research in which I was involved, we specified:

Employees’ financial wellness means that they are able to satisfy ongoing financial needs, feel secure about their financial future, and are free to make choices that allow them to enjoy their lives. It also implies that employees have the competencies and knowledge needed to navigate the complexities of financial decisions.

So, you’re financially well (or, at least, weller) if you’re not stressed out about money all the time and able to afford the basics (for example, being able to go on vacation once in a while, live free of debilitating debt, save for retirement, etc.).

Of course, your average Joe might say, “Hey, if you care about my financial wellness, then just pay me more!”

To which employers might say, “Let’s table that discussion for a minute and talk about financial planning and earned wage access and …”

It’s very tempting to call bullshit on this HR-speak and just keep chanting “Show us the money!” But, well, capitalism. Employers have got to make a buck to stay in business and labor tends to be expensive. Therefore, employers want to pay you enough to get your services but not so much that you’re cutting to far into their profit margins.

It’s a dance, a negotiation, a horse trade in which you’re often the horse.

Feeling Strapped

If you’re not bringing that much to the trade–or at least fail to convince your employer that you are–then your pay is not going to be all that high. In that case, you may be living paycheck to paycheck. You may not be able to pay off your loans. Your monthy credit card debt may be so high that you’re barely able to pay the minium balance.

Which only gets you in deeper into the financial quagmires over time.

You could really use a hand.

So, you go to your boss and ask if maybe they can give you a raise. Your boss shakes their head sadly, saying times are tough, business is flat, and there’s a wage freeze is on.

After that talk, you’re feeling depressed, but then your boss shoots you an email that tells you about the company’s financial wellness program. Shit. You sigh. More confusing HR stuff. You try to avoid HR whenever you get the chance. You feel those folks tend to only show up when bad stuff is cooking.

Giving It a Try

But, hey, you’ve got to try something, so you call a number and they give you the rundown on what’s included in the benefits. Here are some of the possibilities:

  • Financial education
  • Retail discounts programs
  • Easy access to savings planning
  • One-on-one financial coaching/counseling
  • Health savings accounts
  • Retirement plans
  • Flexible spending accounts
  • Life and disability insurance
  • Help with medical bills
  • Lifestyle benefits
  • Low cost loans
  • Help with physical therapy/rehabilitation
  • Earned wage access
  • Payday advance
  • Personalized financial wellness plans
  • Student loan repayment assistance
  • Debt-relief benefits

The Pros and Cons of Financial Wellness Programs

The Pros

The pros are straighforward if the programs actually do what their providers say they will, which is:

  • Bump up employee productivity since employees are less worried about their finances
  • Retain and engage employees who are grateful for the help
  • Reduce financial stress, which can impact some of the other wellness issues we discussed in the prior post
  • Give employees better financial habits; that is, they become better at budgeting, saving, investing and handling financial emergencies.

The Cons

For employers, some percieved cons might be:

  • the cost of offering and implementing a financial wellness program
  • limited employee participation in the program, in which case the cost of the program may not be worth the money and effort put into it

For employees, some perceived cons might be:

  • privacy concerns related to sharing their personal financial information with their employer or a third-party provider
  • a lack of savings because their abilty to tap into to their daily pay becomes too easy via earned wage access
  • frustration if they receive advice or services that don’t really help them in the long run

The Limitations

I think financial wellness programs are generally a good thing, though their efficacy no doubt varies from offering to offering and company to company.

The bigger question: Are theseprograms bandaids being applied to proverbial bullet wounds?

There’s no easy answer to that question. It just depends.

Let’s say you take advantage of a program that gives you 1) same-day access to your pay and 2) financial education. The same-day pay has proven useful to you a couple of times, like when the car broke down and the dog got sick.

Meanwhile, the financial planning education has taught you about the dangers of credit card debt and high car payments, but the advice has been hard for you and your family to follow given your means and expenses.

Ultimately, you appreciate the advice and it helps at the margins, but you’re still going to need a raise or to find a different job that pays more. You sigh. Easier said than done. The rat race is getting to you.

In my next post, part 3 of 3, I discuss some ideas for programs that might do more to increase the financial wellness of Americans.

On Helping Financially Unwell Workers in America

(Part 1 of 3)

Wellness Becomes a Thing

The HR Research Institute recently finished a major study on employee financial wellness.

It’s an interesting topic during these weird financial times, so I thought I’d provide a short history of employee wellness programs in general, put financial wellness in its current context, then talk about other ways we can improve the financial well-being of more people.

If you’re not familiar with it, financial wellness is one of the newer forms of worker benefit offerings. The basic idea is that if an employee is financially unwell, then they are a lot less likely to be productive and engaged at work.

This is both an intriguing and a “no-shit-Sherlock” kind of assertion. It’s interesting (to people like me) because it’s case in which the concept of wellness is being expanded into yet another area of employee’s lives.

So, before we get into financial wellness (aka, well-being), let me lay out a brief history of employee wellness.

A Brief History of the Long Struggle to Keep Workers Fit Enough to Survive the Treadmill

The Stupidly High Costs of U.S. Healthcare

When I first started researching HR issues, wellness initiatives were fairly new (yeah, I’m getting up there), and they typically focused on physical wellness.

Back then, the idea was to distinguish between healthcare benefits, which were the status quo, and wellness benefits, which were a way to reduce healthcare costs. After all, the U.S. is—and even then was—virtually alone among so-called industrialized nations in terms of not providing universal healthcare to all its citizens. My father was a doctor and not exactly a liberal, but when I was growing up, even he thought our system was stupid and needlessly cruel.

As a result of the sheer weirdness of our U.S. health insurance system, which largely rests on the shoulders of employers, organizations have a vested interest in keeping healthcare costs low so that they are not paying as much to provide health insurance to workers.

The fact is, however, that U.S. has the most expensive healthcare system in the world on a per capita basis and gets pretty crappy results for all the money it spends. That’s not the fault of employers, however. It’s the fault of the frankly stupid way our system is set up.

In my opinion, the vast majority of voters should be mightily pissed off about this, voting out every self-serving, money-grubbing politician who is not in favor of fixing our expensive, busted system, but the majority of voters still aren’t there…yet. So it goes.

Making the Best of a Bad Hand

A lot of Americans like our employer-sponsored system of health care, but most employers surveyed by the Kaiser Family Foundation think our current system is so broken, expensive and usustainable that in the near future the government is going to need to step in to fix things–or at least help the current creaky system limp along.

For now, though, employers are as about as stuck with current system as the rest of us.

Although employers get tax breaks and can shift a lot of the costs to their employees, they still spend an absurd amount of money to provide that health insurance (assuming they do, of course).

So, employers have long since decided to encourage their employees to raise their level of wellness so that they, the employers, can reduce the costs of providing health insurance.

Back in the Day

When wellness benefits first emerged (the term ‘well-being’ came later), they were mostly focused on getting employees into better shape physically. This basically meant getting them into better aerobic shape (heart disease being a killer, both physically and financially) and getting them to stop poisoning themselves with legal substances (such as tobacco and alcohol) as well as the illegal ones.

So, employers started paying for, or at least contributing to, things like gym memberships and smoking cessation programs. And, they started offering financial incentives, such as lower health insurance costs, to employees if they cut down on the cigs and the booze.

It all seemed pretty obvious at the time.

Did It Work?

Maybe, sometimes. Studies differ, and success probably depends on the execution of those programs. Today Americans tend to smoke less than they did 30 years ago, but that probably has less to do with wellness benefits and more to do with government packaging warnings and restrictions on advertisements.

It hasn’t been all good news. During the same interval, Americans’ consumption of alcohol has risen and fallen, whereas obesity has generally ballooned. Of course, the global obesity epidemic (pandemic?) is driven by a lot of different factors that wellness programs have not been able to prevent.

Then Came the Mental Side of Things

Once you start pulling at the wellness thred, however, you start to see how entangled it is with other kinds of wellness, especially mental. After all, people smoke and drink not just because it feels good (getting high has deep biological roots not only in humans but other animals as well) but because they’re stressed out and suffering emotional/mental tribulations.

To get people to cut down on their smoking, drinking, and/or eating, sometimes you need to address their mental issues. And so, employers started putting greater emphasis on employee assistance plans (EAPs), addiction treatment, and eventually things like mindfulness.

And Don’t Forget the Work Environment

We shouldn’t forget about environmental wellness, either. When I first started out, ergonomics were all the rage. Personal computers had entered the workplace and suddenly people were sitting in front of screens more while clicking their keyboards and mice. This led to backaches, carpal tunnel syndrome, eye-strain issues and more. There was this big push for ergonomically designed office furniture.

There was also the crappy air in office buildings where all the windows were sealed and god-knows-what chemicals were oozing out of printers, ceiling tiles, acrylic floors, etc. That’s when “sick building syndrome” became a thing.

Of course, the concern with the work environments started much earlier, when plant workers were suffering from sundry issues related repetitive stress injuries, machine accidents, chemical exposures and more. A lot of employers didn’t want to think about these things, but the combination of broken employees and union representation tended to concentrate their focus.

Social Well-being Joins the Fitness Team

If you keep pulling at that wellness thread, it’s not long until you realize there are social elements at play as well. Some of this stems from the research into employee engagement, especially by Gallup. Their studies suggested that the social environment at work also affects employees.

Of course, in retrospect, this is another one of those “no duh” moments in HR. Obviously, if you have friends at work and good relations with your boss, you’re more likely to be engaged and productive.

So sum up, your physical wellness is influenced by your work environment and your mental health, which is in turn influenced by your social well-being at work and outside of it.

Okay, so that’s my very brief history of wellness programs. In my next post, part 2 of 3, we’ll focus on another step in wellness evolution: today’s financial wellness initiatives.

How Will Generative AI Transform the Future of Work?

The short answer is that nobody yet knows, but here’s a summary of recent articles by folks trying to figure out how generative artificial intelligence (AI) might shake up specific jobs and the future of work as a whole in coming years.

AI Experts Wanted

  • “Implementing AI during a worldwide talent shortage” is (kind of) about the Catch-22 in which companies lack enough human talent to implement AI systems so they can make do with less human talent. That is, as much as many companies want to harness the power of AI (presumably to automate or at least augment certain jobs), they can’t find the talented people necessary to get those systems into place. Oh, the irony.

New research by SambaNova Systems has shown that, globally, only 18% of organizations [in the UK] are rolling out AI as a large-scale, enterprise-scale initiative. Similarly, 59% of IT managers in the UK report that they have the budget to hire additional resources for their AI teams, but 82% said that actually hiring into these teams is a challenge….[O]nly one in eight IT leaders have fully resourced teams with enough skilled workers to deliver on what the C-suite is asking. A further one in three are struggling to meet the demands placed on them. The rest (over half) are unable to deliver on the C-suite’s vision with the people they have.”

So, what should companies do? One idea is to upskill workers so that they can implement these new and powerful large language models (LLMs) (like the latest Generative Pre-trained Transformer (GPT) models everyone is gushing about). Another idea is to outsource such projects. So, the future of AI will first require many companies to upskill their human workforces.

Human Jobs Safe (for the Moment)

  • “ChatGPT Is a Stunning AI, but Human Jobs Are Safe (for Now)” is about whether the amazing and increasingly famous ChatGPT large language model will soon be able to replace a large portion of the workforce. Some believe the answer is yes. An article in The Guardian, for example, recently stated “professors, programmers and journalists could all be out of a job in just a few years.” 

But Jackson Ryan, writing in CNET, says it’s not that simple. “[ChatGPT] doesn’t know how to separate fact from fiction. It can’t be trained to do so. It’s a word organizer, an AI programmed in such a way that it can write coherent sentences…It definitely can’t do the job of a journalist. “

Instead, Ryan sees its future use as more a tool than a kind of automation: “ChatGPT and its underlying model will likely complement what journalists, professors and programmers do. It’s a tool, not a replacement.”

  • In CDO Trends, Paul Mah writes about “How AI Will Change Work.” He agrees that people will tend to use generative AI more as a tool than a replacement. He writes, “Just like how graphic designers took to using computers, programmers, designers, and writers will soon need to start using AI tools to stay relevant. If you have yet to try your hand at writing the prompts used to generate AI art, let me assure you that it is harder than it looks. Part programming and part writing, it takes a fair amount of effort to get text-to-image systems to generate the artwork that you want.” In short, using these tools effectively requires skills and expertise in itself.

Productivity Ahead in the Future of Work

He too agrees that, at least for now, “generative AI won’t kick every creative worker out of their jobs, but it will change how they go about them, and where their time and energy will be focused.” So, how will generative AI jumpstart productivity? Toker suggests three ways: 1) Faster writing as the AI creates notes and rough drafts that writers can build on and revise, 2) Improved customer service as employees “get a transcript of any conversation and get generative AI to produce an analytical summary of what was said,” and 3) Faster mock-up creation “by building out the basic scaffolding at the early stages…[giving] workers more time for creative exploration with customers.”

Content Marketing Bonanza

  • In “7 AI predictions for 2023 from IT leaders,” various AI and information technology experts weigh in on what’s going to happen with AI over the coming year. For example, David Talby, CTO at John Snow Labs, notes, “Dozens of companies offer you products that will draft essays, ad copy, or love letters. Instead of searching through stock photography, you can type a query and get a newly generated image. And this is just the beginning – we’re only scratching the surface of generative voice and video applications, so it will be interesting to see innovations and use cases come forth in the coming year.”
  • In “5 Ways to Use ChatGPT in Your Workflow,” Hillel Fuld discusses using ChatGPT to boost content marketing by using it to come up with ideas on any given topic, helping to create a first draft, suggesting titles, helping with research and shortening text with character limits.

More Applications Than You Think

  • In “How to Save Your Job from ChatGPT,” Trung Phan says the new tech can create documents on a range of issues, including legal, financial analysis, sales pitches and even corporate strategies. [Note: Given the bot’s propensity for fiction and exaggeration, however, firms had better be extremely careful for using it for these purposes.] Ethan Mollick, an innovation professor at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, says, ““I think people are underestimating what we are seeing from ChatGPT…If you are a white-collar worker, this is transformative for productivity.” Phan goes on to cite other possible uses:

Lawyers will probably write legal briefs this way, and administrative assistants will use this technique to draft memos and emails. Marketers will have an idea for a campaign, generate copy en masse and provide finishing touches. Consultants will generate whole Powerpoint decks with coherent narratives based on a short vision and then provide the details. Financial analysts will ask for a type of financial model and have an Excel template with data sources autofilled.

Disrupting Industries

  • In Harvard Business Review‘s “ChatGPT and How AI Disrupts Industries,” the authors writes, “AI presents opportunities as well and will create new jobs and different kinds of organizations. The question isn’t whether AI will be good enough to take on more cognitive tasks but rather how we’ll adapt.”

The authors disagree with the conventional wisdom that generative AI will simply improve the speed with which writers write, programmers code or artists create. They note that GPS-plus-AI-maps did not just make taxi drivers better at their jobs; they made it possible for hundreds of thousands of Uber and Lyft drivers to compete with taxi drivers. In other words, it changed the whole paradigm. The authors are not sure what these new work paradigms will look like, but they expect they will be transformative.

Getting Things Wrong

  • In “Beyond ChatGPT: The Future Of AI at Work,” Karl Moore points out some of the most critical flaws associated with ChatGPT. In particular, the bot does not actually read sources and cite works. Therefore, we can’t trust it to get things right and can’t help the reader determine the validity of an analysis by drilling down into source materials.

One possible way around this future of work is by coupling generative AI with semantic search, which “seeks to improve search accuracy by understanding the searcher’s intent and the contextual meaning of terms as they appear in the searchable dataspace.” He states, “When generative AI and semantic search are used together, you can ensure that generative AI chatbot responding to a customer query is providing correct company information, and that responses being provided to answer a critical client question is based on the most up-to-date competitor information.”

Lean On Me

  • In “Stumbling with their words, some people let AI do the talking,” the authors discuss the case of the dyslexic business owner who had ChatGPT hooked up to his email account by tech consultant Danny Richman. Now when he writes a message to his clients, “the AI instantly reworks the grammar, deploys all the right niceties and transforms it into a response that is unfailingly professional and polite.” After Richmond wrote about the success of the application on Twitter, many people reached out to him: “They said they always worried about their own writing: Is my tone appropriate? Am I too terse? Not empathetic enough? Could something like this be used to help with that?” One person even told him, “If only I’d had this years ago, my career would look very different by now.”

Creativity Tool in the Future of Work

  • In “Four Paths to the Revelation,” Ethan Mollick formulates “exercises to help you understand the potential impact of AI.” First, treat it like “a magic intern with a tendency to lie, but a huge desire to make you happy.” Give it proper oversight, using your own expertise to guide it, and you’ll become far more productive. Second, give it a scenario and ask it to give you multiple choices about what happens next. You can use this to do anything from create choose-your-own-adventure games to business scenario planning. Third, ask it for lots of ideas. For example, “Give me 25 ideas about how to make money with a medical degree in an industry other than medicine.” After it lists out the ideas, ask it to elaborate on the ideas that seem most interesting and feasible to you. Fourth, use it to engage in a joint hallucination. The example he uses is “Taylor Swift starts a supergroup with the Beatles who have time-travelled from 1969.” He then asks for ideas related to scenarios such as a list of songs they’d perform together (including songs they’d write jointly), a Stephen Colbert monologue after their concerts, and a play about how the Beatles and Swift first met.

But you don’t need to stop there, says Mollick. There are many other options, from asking it to write some working computer code (yeah, it can do that, though the code may not be perfect) to seeing how many of your current duties you might automate.

We’re Just Getting Started

So that’s my synthesis of some of the articles out there on how generative AI will change the future of work. These are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Of course, journalists will write many more and better articles as they grow more familiar with these technologies and leverage the thousands of new applications that stem from them.

Here’s hoping we can keep up.

Featured image from Mirko Tobias Schäfer,

Just Remember

In my day job, I’m lucky enough to chat with lots of smart people about talent-management issues: that is, the art and science of managing people at work.

Recently, some of these smart folks have indicated that their client organizations are suddenly less worried about things like employee well-being and experience and more concerned about the return-on-investment of worker-focused programs.

I’ve seen all this before, multiple times. We go through boom cycles during which employers are having a tough time recruiting and retaining employees. In these cycles, employers give a lot of lip service and sometimes genuine attention to issues such as employee engagement, empowerment, experience, and well-being of all sorts (physical, mental, financial, etc.).

Then an economic downturn hits and much of it goes right out the window. That was the inspiration behind the following piece, first posted on LinkedIn.


I get it. They’re scared. They’re scared and determined to be brave, to survive the hard times. They’ve read enough “motivational” business books packed with tropes and flaccid logic, and so they trot out out the ole “when the going gets tough…” slogans.

Like I said, I get it. But here’s what I don’t like: the sheer hypocrisy of pretending to care about fairness, equity and employee experience one day and then being willing–often eager–to toss it all out the window in tougher times. Suddenly, they’re looking for that “ROI” on well-being and experience initiatives, suddenly the employee “partner” and “stakeholder” represents a line item to be cut, a number on a balance sheet.

I get it. We live in a capitalist system, and that’s how it works. Companies need to do what it takes to survive. Some are determined to “be bold,” to gain “market share” as others struggle. A virtue. Part of the game. The system keeps us all “agile” and works the wonders of “creative destruction.” Proper reallocation of resources. Sure, sure. I know, I know.

But just remember that employees do not forget the hypocrisy after the fact, when the economy ultimately rebounds and suddenly the endless “war for talent” is back on. Just remember WHY it’s so hard to retain good people, remember WHY engagement is viewed as a joke among far too many workers.

I don’t have the answer to these conundrums. I’m not even condemning necessary downsizings and the like. But remember these moments. Remember how one day they’re talking about creating a sense of “belonging” and the next they’re talking about “outplacement.” Yes, it’s brutal, it’s life, it’s the American way.

I get it.

Just remember.

Featured image is a boomerang. Photo by Rama, taken as MEG — Musée d’ethnographie de Genève (official website)