Through good times and recessions, along with rising and falling stock markets, a common feeling that doesn't ever seem to go away is a sense of financial anxiety about the future.
In our ninth year of asking Americans about their financial New Year's resolutions, my company keeps finding some of the same themes. People are stressed about their finances, often see dark economic clouds on the horizon and many feel paralyzed to do anything about their financial futures.
In this year's Allianz survey fielded in November, 36 percent of Americans said they fear another major recession in 2018. This feeling comes despite record highs in the stock market, strong economic growth, and unemployment at a 17-year low.
What's going on here? And what impact might this have on Minnesota employers and the productivity of their workforces?
Our modern American financial anxiety falls into the most familiar and basic of behavior patterns — spending too much and saving too little. Americans' most common admission of a bad financial habit in our research is "spending too much money on things I don't need" (32 percent), the highest percentage since 2012, followed by "not saving any money" (29 percent), "saving some money, but not as much as I could" (24 percent), and "not paying down debt fast enough" (23 percent).
Social media may be driving these responses, creating a "fear of missing out" trap where a person's unnecessary spending is driven by a feeling they must keep up with the fun they see others having.
This digital "keeping up with the Joneses" can wreak financial havoc on even the most conscientious Minnesota employee.
While each person needs to take responsibility for their own finances, Minnesota employers can build systems and offer programs to help their employees manage this financial stress. Besides offering basic long-term retirement savings plans such as a 401(k), employers should consider offering free financial counseling and training services on site.
For example, one service offered by our Employee Assistance Program (EAP) is unlimited access to financial experts who can assist employees and their family members with a range of issues such as retirement planning, taxes, mortgages, insurance, budgeting, debt and bankruptcy.
The EAP also offers a free consultation with an attorney to help with pressing legal matters that can affect one's finances, such as divorce, adoption, wills and trusts. A 25 percent reduction in fees is available if the employee needs full legal representation.
Eight free emotional counseling sessions are also available to help an employee deal with strains in personal relationships that may arise from financial stress.
These services allow employees to build new financial planning skills and set up a course of action to reduce financial anxiety.
We also offer access to two financial planners who can help employees with an overall financial plan, or help them navigate other employee benefits, such as access to a 529 Plan for college savings, life insurance or the employee stock purchase program.
Employers should not only consider offering such programs, they need to promote them regularly inside the organization.
One silver lining in our research is that respondents are more optimistic about making money in the near future (39 percent) than pessimistic about losing money (23 percent), and for the first time ever, financial stability (71 percent) tops health and wellness (67 percent) as their main focus for 2018.
Another hopeful sign is that 42 percent said they plan to "manage better and save more" in their 2018 new year's resolutions, up from 37 percent in 2016.
These responses signal an opportunity for Minnesota employers. Americans seem more ready than ever to embrace a path toward financial stability and lower stress, and a nudge from their employer may be all they need to get on that path.
Our research found that if given the opportunity to have free access, more Americans would pick a financial professional (28 percent) over a therapist (19 percent) or nutritionist/dietitian (18 percent), and nearly a third (32 percent) said they are more likely to seek the help of a financial professional in 2018.
When more than a third of Americans see a possible recession in 2018 despite strong economic signals, employers still have stressed people showing up to work. Offering programs and services to address these deep financial anxieties can help reduce employee stress and increase overall productivity.
Paul Kelash is vice president of consumer insights for Allianz Life.