What We Can Learn About Addressing a Need for Wellness Within a Firm from the Meredith Corporation

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Across the United States, the need for better financial responsibility is well-documented. On average, Americans spend too much, save too little and experience a great deal of stress over money. This stress negatively impacts family, performance at work, and nearly every other aspect of day-to-day life.

While there is a push for schools to better educate children on the basics of finances, those who are out of school and in the workforce have historically been left behind. However, in recent years, businesses have begun to step in to fill this need for their employees. Many times these financial programs are coupled with existing personal wellness measures creating enormous benefit for those who participate.

One incredibly successful program is run by Meredith Corp., a media and marketing corporation headquartered in Des Moines, Iowa. Known best to consumers for its popular magazine Better Homes and Gardens, Meredith Corp. has over 4,500 employees across 21 different locations. In 2008, Chairman and CEO Steve Lacy launched the Meredith Wellness Program with the primary goal to “help our employees enjoy a long and healthy life, right now and during retirement.”

The Meredith Wellness Program (MWP) has a dynamic approach to improving employees’ lives. Physically, the program offers classes on nutrition, health care and lifestyle, as well as sponsoring activity tracking and exercise events. On top of this, the MWP includes a targeted set of financial classes and testing to see where you stand financially. The aim of this approach is to reduce financial stress in the short term and prepare employees for the long term.

Another innovative part of the MWP is its focus on education. Classes such as “Your Money in the Year Ahead and Tips for Taxes,” “Holiday Budgeting,” or “Credit and Debt Management” are all offered free to employees and their spouses. Also, the instructors are brought in solely to teach; they have no products or services to sell. Both the focus and the lack of products remove any conflict of interest for those teaching, leading to a better experience for participants.

At the heart of the financial arm of this program is the Personal Financial Wellness (PFW) checkup. Designed for Meredith by the Personal Finance Employee Education Foundation (PFEEF), this eight-question checkup “benchmarks cash flow stress, rate of savings, level of understanding of employee benefits, and overall level of financial well-being.” Scored on a scale of 1 to 10, this survey provides invaluable data and insight into the financial education needs of employees and has allowed Meredith to tailor its offerings each year to maximize the benefit from its program.

This focus on tracking results extends across the entire program, not just the financial side. Through its own website, developed specifically for the MWP, Meredith confidentially tracked participation and progress, and offered incentives for completing certain events and challenges. These incentives included “Well-Bucks,” which can be redeemed for prizes; reimbursement programs; and increased company contributions to health care premiums.

While the program itself is impressive, the results are even better. Participation in the company 401(k) program increased 10 percent in just one year; 87 percent of employees reduced debt or were debt free by 2013; and the percentage of people with high financial stress was reduced from 22 percent to 8 percent in three years.

On top of the employee gains, Meredith has also benefitted. While it has spent over $2 million on its wellness program, the estimated financial savings from health care costs, sick leave and stress-related illness are over $10 million. My hope is that more companies will be able to duplicate Meredith’s success and increase investment in physical and financial wellness programs.

John Hoffmire is director of the Impact Bond Fund at Saïd Business School at Oxford University and directs the Center on Business and Poverty at the Wisconsin School of Business at UW-Madison. He runs Progress Through Business, a nonprofit group promoting economic development.

Ben Young, Hoffmire’s colleague at Progress Through Business, did the research for this article.