This article was published on May 24, 2018 on Employee Benefit News written by Nick Otto.

Financial stress is taking its toll on employees, causing them to partake in rather risky money behavior: tapping into their 401(k) or other retirement savings in an attempt to get back on track.

More than half of workers (54%) who identify as being financially stressed say they will likely use their retirement funds for expenses other than retirement, according to PwC’s 2018 Employee Financial Wellness Survey, out this week. That’s compared to 33% of their colleagues who say they’re not stressed about finances.

“Our survey indicates that the main reason people invade their retirement plans is due to an unexpected expense, emergency and/or to defray medical expenses,” Kent Allison, a partner and national leader, employee financial education and wellness practice at PwC, tells EBN. “Not having enough set aside for an unexpected expense has been the No. 1 cause of financial stress since we started our survey.”


Overall, PwC found 47% of all workers say they are stressed about finances. Though that’s a slight improvement from previous years (53% said they were stressed in 2017; 52% in 2016), the survey results are still alarming. Allison says smart employers will step in to address their employees’ financial worries.

“Employers can make inroads on both the retirement plan leakage issue and the stress issue with more of a focus on setting aside some funds as an emergency fund, in addition to putting money away for retirement,” Allison says. “This requires not only the communication and education to reinforce the message but the mechanism to do so, such as payroll deductions into a savings account.”

According to the survey results, just 31% of stressed workers say they’d be able to meet basic expenses if they were out of work for an extended amount of time.

Employees say they are stressed over uncertainty regarding healthcare. Many are pressed to support both aging parents and adult children.

For the first time, the survey finds that among baby boomers’ reasons for delaying retirement, needing to keep healthcare coverage is a more popular choice than simply not wanting to retire.

Fewer millennial and Gen X employees carry credit card balances, although the number who find it difficult to make their minimum payments has actually increased among millennials. Fewer employees overall (and Gen Xers in particular) are using credit cards to pay for monthly necessities they can’t otherwise afford.

“A lifetime income calculator that gives an employee a preview of what the financial future may look like is one of the most high-impact things an employer can do get an employee to think twice about using his or her retirement plan as a savings account,” says Aaron Harding, managing director, employee financial education & wellness practice at PwC.

“The credit card debt they’re planning to pay off with funds from the retirement plan seem less important when faced with the image of going hungry in retirement,” he says.

Combining the calculator with access to professionals who can help an employee map out a plan to avoid the next withdrawal — and motivate them to follow it — is even better, he continues.

In his experience, the employers who get it right include three things when creating a financial well-being program.

1. An eye-opener to show employees what the future looks like if nothing changes.
2. A process that breaks large tasks into small easy-to-accomplish bits.
3. Access to professionals who help ease the worry when an employee hits an obstacle.

“Easing workers’ financial stress is about more than offering one product or another,” Harding says.