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How employers can support employee financial wellbeing amid COVID-19

Apr 22, 2020 2:15:00 PM / by The HR Trove by Willis Towers Watson

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Actions taken in the coming weeks – the words you say, how you handle difficult news – will be part of your employer brand for years to come.

It’s clear the COVID-19 pandemic will have long-lasting consequences for the U.S. health care system and economy. Employers have spent these early weeks on the crises at hand – developing urgent employee communications, converting to remote workforces, understanding pay implications for salary and hourly workers as work has dried up or evolved, and navigating changes in their workforce. Many are now turning their attention to the financial health of their employees and how growing volatility and increasing financial hardship will affect what they do next.

All considered, the situation shouldn’t change your overall financial wellbeing strategy. What it should change is how you think about the short-term action you need to take to support your priorities and people.

How do you get a handle on your employees’ financial needs, and how do you reprioritize limited Total Rewards dollars? You do the same things you would in good times. And it starts with tuning in.


If you want to know what employees are most concerned about and how you can best support them, there’s a sure way to find out – ask. It might seem like an inopportune time to ask employees to take part in a pulse survey or virtual focus group, but it’s an effective way to demonstrate your genuine commitment to lending a hand.

In the last few weeks, we’ve seen some of our highest participation rates in these employee listening activities. Employees want to be heard, and speaking up when you ask their opinion is something they can control.

Of course, it’s also a time where you’ll be tuning into leadership and changing business objectives for the coming year – including securing greater cost savings to stay afloat. Many organizations will have some tough Total Rewards decisions to make.

Ultimately, making thoughtful decisions comes down to a 360-degree view of the situation. That includes getting a handle on financial insights like how many employees are experiencing layoffs, furloughs or reduced hours; how employer-provided benefits can provide short-term access to funding, and what the market downturn means for those close to retirement. It also includes a look at how the data at your fingertips has changed since the start of the year – information like who has changed their savings behavior, has a loan or has suffered a hardship withdrawal.

Our goal is to help employers meet employees where they are. That means recognizing:

  • How much saving, spending, financial state and financial goals vary by employee
  • How an event (e.g., job loss, health changes) can affect a seemingly stable financial situation quickly
  • Commonalities among cohorts that make it easier to know how to provide for and engage them

Face your program shortcomings – and decide which ones matter

Once you understand what different employee cohorts need, you’ll want to take stock of which programs and tools you offer today, particularly as they relate to helping employees understand their current state, manage their financial goals through the downturn, and weather and prepare for further financial shock. This exercise isn’t just about figuring out what you can add and further invest in. Right now, it’s about figuring out what you already have in place that you can better coordinate and put in front of your people.

It's about uncovering the answers to questions like:

  • Which critical employee needs are solved by the things you already have in place – like one-on-one support, hospital indemnity coverage to provide cash in the event of hospitalization or legal support that provides key services for less? How can you better connect employees to these resources?
  • Which needs aren’t being addressed? For example, are people taking 401(k) loans when they should sooner claim some cash from their health savings account? How can you help now and longer-term?
  • How can resources devoted to offerings that are not providing value (e.g., a vendor or service that few use and many report as low value) be reallocated to better address employee needs?
  • Finally, where does your benefit design or legislation provide flexibility to help employees in dire straits (e.g., can employees suspend dependent care or commuter benefits to secure funds and how quickly can you halt wage garnishments associated with student loan debt in accordance with the CARES Act)?

Create an authentic story before employees create one for you

These building blocks – listening, getting that full view of your employees’ value, and understanding what your Total Rewards do and don’t do for peoples’ financial needs – are critical ingredients for your imminent and long-term financial wellbeing strategy. And that’s key.

Just as important: The story your employees will tell about how you helped them through these challenging financial times – whether you intended to be part of the story or not.

The actions you take in the coming weeks, the words you say and the way you handle difficult and evolving news will all be part of your employer brand for months – and possibly years – to come. The best thing you can do right now is to:

  • Keep messages short and simple
  • Be genuine
  • Show empathy

For many businesses, being forced to contemplate tough decisions that impact people financially is inevitable. Being insensitive to employees’ new reality doesn’t have to be.

Feeling stuck, with so much to focus on? Find support

Employers are more stretched than ever. Time to prioritize is fleeting. Our best advice is to lean into partners who can help you quickly get a handle on what you have to tackle now and what might be coming your way. The right approach is going to be different for every company. You don’t have to weather these decisions alone.



Karolyn Karl - Director of Communication and Change Management

Mark Smrecek - Senior Director – Retirement



This blog originally appeared here on the Willis Towers Watson website, April 14, 2020. 


Topics: total rewards, communication, wellbeing, talent, health and benefits, COVID-19, Coronavirus

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