Empowering Low-Wage and Economically Vulnerable Workers with Financial Wellbeing Interventions
Walmart, the world's largest employer, needed a partner that could analyze the current state of employee financial wellbeing, design and implement targeted interventions to empower employees, and evaluate the impact of those solutions.
- 80,000 employees are currently using the intervention and have moved $3M
- Almost half of US workers (48%) feel uneasy and financially insecure
- This intervention was designed for over 1 Million employees across over 3,500 locations
- 7 of 10 US workers report that financial stress is their most common source of stress
a societal problem
Seven out of ten U.S. workers report that financial stress is their most common source of stress, and almost half (48%) report feeling uneasy and financially insecure. A majority consider their financial situation to be ‘only fair’ or ‘poor’ with many, if not most, families living paycheck-to-paycheck. When unexpected expenses occur or emergencies strike, few families have sufficient resources to fall back on. In an economy where so many employees are stressed about money, providing tools, benefits, services and cultural changes that are central to helping employees build their capacities to effectively budget and manage their money, is not just a novel benefit but a forward-thinking competitive advantage.
We partnered with Walmart to analyze the current state of employee financial wellbeing, design and implement targeted interventions to empower employees and evaluate the impact of our solutions.
Understanding the Problem Space
As with any change initiative, our teams needed to understand the impact we were seeking to achieve, how we might measure that change, what individual, interpersonal and environmental factors contribute positively or negatively to the outcomes we seek, and what resources might be in place to support change. Our first step in generating insight was to roll-up our sleeves in a two-and-a-half day collaborative workshop with corporate HR and associate wellbeing staff, and internal and external employee benefits providers.
Together we analyzed the current organizational body of knowledge regarding employee wages, available benefits, and began to shape our definition of financial wellbeing. Leaning heavily on work performed by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB, another Mad*Pow client), we began to carve out a definition of Financial Wellbeing and the subjective and objective measures that compose it. Ultimately, we defined Financial Wellbeing as “a state of being where individuals can successfully manage their current and ongoing financial obligations, have the capacity to absorb an unexpected expense, and feel optimistic and in-control of their financial status.” We also settled on 3 broad categories of financial behaviors to focus on (1) everyday spending and savings; (2) saving for the future (mid-to-long term) and; (3) managing significant negative financial events.
Post-workshop, we performed a literature review to examine existing theoretical, methodological and empirical knowledge relevant to financial wellbeing and its determinants, interviewed subject matter experts Annamaria Lusardi, Academic Director of GWU’s Global Financial Literacy Excellence Center, Dean Karlan, co-director of Global Poverty Research Lab, Julia Brown, Program manager, US Finance at Innovations for Poverty Action, and Alex Brown, Associate professor economics at Texas A&M, and of course, connected directly with the intended beneficiaries of our solution – hourly and salaried employees.
To gather rich data from employees, we conducted a series of employee intercepts at multiple locations across the US, and performed 150 brief interviews detailing employee perceptions and realities of their financial behaviors and status. Rounding out our insights gathering, we implemented a survey across the organization which sought to pinpoint themes and determinants uncovered during our other research efforts along the way.
As one might imagine, our analysis suggested that while virtually everyone strives to be financially stable, not everyone has the capabilities and opportunities to achieve this goal. Further, the factors that help or hinder individual financial wellbeing varied widely but common patterns did emerge.
Our 5 Key Insights from This Phase of Research Were:
- Financial stress and instability could occur regardless of income. Clearly, the prevalence is greater at lower income levels but individual behavioral patterns – managing cash flow and debt, decreasing expenses and increasing long- and short-term savings – considerably affect employees abilities to make ends meet, feel secure and not be overwhelmed by financially related stressors.
- Where people were struggling, they did not have a good sense of what would most help their situations (e.g., paying down debt vs. building savings) and were at a complete loss on where to turn if an unexpected financial crisis occurred.
- By and large, employees were planning well for retirement through the company’s 401(k) plan but had serious concerns about meeting more immediate financial needs such as rent or other bills.
- The timing of financial events such as payday, bill due dates, holidays or milestone life events, and unexpected events weigh heavily on financial decisions and where money is allocated, such as if a bill can be paid on time or at all, or which needs or wants are prioritized over others
- Our most impactful insight gathered through our research, centered on paycheck (or income) volatility. About one-third of our research participants reported having consistent but irregular swings (dips and peaks) in their take-home pay, making it hard to predict what they would earn and even more difficult to plan or budget effectively. The ups and downs of the income rollercoaster also tended to send employee’s sense of financial security and wellbeing for a loop.
In addition to our thematic analysis, we coded our data according to the COM-B Model (Michie, et al. 2013) to more precisely align target behaviors with their underlying barriers/facilitators, and identify and deliver appropriate intervention functions, policies, and behavior change techniques.
In terms of barriers, only a small portion of spending and saving behaviors were affected by a lack of knowledge or skills regarding what financial behaviors are broadly beneficial or harmful. Memory and attention processes did come into effect with regard to successful management of which bills to pay when, and judgement / decision processes were activated across all 3 categories of financial behaviors (everyday spending and savings, mid-to-long term savings, and managing significant negative financial events). More influential on financial behaviors were motivational processes, particularly strong urges to fulfill material or experiential wants (i.e., consumerism/immediacy bias), emotional regulation (e.g., ‘retail therapy’), and stress / pressure-induced decisions. The factors that appeared to have the strongest effect on financial behaviors were those that exist outside of the person, environmental contexts and resources such as wages/income, available work/scheduling (for hourly workers), timing of incoming/outgoing cashflow, debt and social influences and norms such as caring for dependents and/or extended families, and mimicking behaviors of immediate social network.
Similarly, factors that would be conducive to executing beneficial target behaviors included organizational culture and climate such as subjective norms, social influence and social learning, in addition to supporting the development of money management skills, triaging crisis events, building emotional and behavioral self-regulation skills, and facilitating self-efficacy and increased competence in meeting personal financial goals.
To conclude our diagnosis phase, our team performed an audit of available employee benefits, mapping them to the financial behaviors and underlying determinants they address, and assessing their potential value in terms of employee uptake, usage, outcomes compared organizational cost. We looked for gaps, overlaps and misses with the existing mix, seeking to shed those not fit for purpose, more prominently feature those with value and add new benefits where gaps existed.
Designing the Intervention
To address the modifiable factors and insights above, our team settled on a mix of layered intervention components. At the top-level, to make all financial benefits top of mind and easy to navigate, we created a financial wellbeing hub, called “Gravy,” that presented all employee financial benefits in one place, organizing them in terms of our identified buckets – everyday spending and savings, future savings, and significant events. In addition to enabling easy access and understanding of benefits, custom content such as short educational articles and tips, and recommended actions to try were created to assist employees in improving their financial literacy and skills. Content could be consumed via a mobile website or through email digests.
For more urgent needs, we worked with our client to implement a call-center to counsel and direct employees to resources and third-party partners in times of need. We developed a series of branched-logic call-center scripts and FAQs, to provide emotional as well as practical support while our client procured partners that could more effectively navigate and assist with dramatic financial events, at a discounted, subsidized or limited pro-bono rate for employees.
The final piece of the intervention was aimed directly at paycheck volatility and involved partnering directly with existing services rather than building new solutions. Our client integrated their payroll service with Even and PayActiv and made these benefits available to all employees that choose them. These two services combine to “even out” income over time by establishing the average earnings between paychecks and automatically advancing or withholding earnings to stabilize pay, making financial planning and budgeting easier. Additionally, employees can access earned but unpaid wages in-between paydays, to reduce the risk of costly overdrafts, bounced or missed payments, or payday loans. The services also provide goal-setting, planning, and feedback techniques which help employees to plan ahead for spending and savings goals and illuminating how much money is safe to spend based on those goals.
Experimentation, Implementation and Evaluation
Rolling out and scaling interventions to 1.4 million employees across 4,500 locations, requires not only careful planning in terms of logistics but methods to evaluate an intervention’s “fit” (e.g., the desirability, acceptance, usability, and usefulness of the intervention by the people who will interact with it), its feasibility (e.g., projected resource costs – people and funds needed for full scale implementation and maintenance), and its effects (i.e., does it result in changing behavior and delivering desired outcomes as intended, and are there any unintended consequences?).
Our initial evaluation began as the intervention strategy was translated into multiple visualized concept approaches describing our intended outcomes (net gain for employees), variations on how the intervention as a whole might work to achieve those outcomes, and different functional, aesthetic, and tonal directions we might take. Concept testing was performed with 12 employees through remote moderated testing and 80 employees through remote unmoderated testing. Feedback gathered through concept testing helped focus and refine the overarching strategy, determine visual direction and clarify terminology and value proposition statements.
From Intervention Concept to Pilot Trial
Our goal as a design partner is to deliver meaningful impact with the interventions we help deploy. Doing so typically requires maximizing reach, usage (uptake + engagement), efficacy and cost-effectiveness. In order to iterate, refine, and scale our financial wellbeing intervention in a relatively nimble fashion, we designed a stepped wedge trial to expand reach over time, while evaluating program efficacy and optimizing the components associated with uptake and engagement.
The primary outcomes for program efficacy consisted of:
- Employee perceived financial wellbeing measured by self-report questionnaire
- Satisfaction with available benefits and employer measured by self-report questionnaire
- Activation of benefits measured through the FWB hub
Secondary outcomes for program efficacy consisted of:
- Resolved call-center tickets
- “Positive momentum” (e.g., tracking towards personal goals measured through application data)
Uptake and engagement outcome measures consisted of:
- Repeat Log-ins (usage beyond 1 day)
- Application downloads
- Intranet banner ad click-through & conversion
- Email campaign conversions
In a stepped wedge design, our intervention is made available to different company locations over time. Each “step” of the wedge, represents a 3-month period, where the intervention is rolled out to a cluster of pre-selected locations, and evaluated for uptake, engagement and efficacy, as compared to matched “nearest-neighbor” locations (e.g., geographic, demographic, economic make-up) and then rapidly adapted based on findings before the next step in the wedge occurs. Measurements were taken during the beginning, middle, and end-points of each step, via location wide survey, random selection employee intercepts and website and app data collections. In all, we completed 3 trial steps across 16 locations before completing our engagement together, and our client partner continued the process of experimentation and scaling throughout the organization.
Key findings from the stepped wedge trials that were used to refine our intervention included:
- Environmental restructuring is a critical component to uptake and engagement. Both physical and social affordances had bigger effects than digital promotion (intranet banner ads, email campaigns) alone.
- On location environmental graphics (posters, table-tents, flyers) were more effective than digital only promotions.
- Social influences such as supportive shift-managers (announcing the new benefits) and early adopters (employee champions) on location had the largest effects on uptake and engagement.
- Effective content, tone and imagery (and to some extent underlying constructs) were not generalizable between suburban and urban locations, or lower SES compared to mid and above. Tailoring the presentation of the intervention and promotional materials would be necessary to optimize treatment effects but was out of scope for our engagement as designed.
- Repeat engagement with educational material (articles, tips) was low and dropped-off significantly once individuals activated mobile apps for paycheck volatility.
At the of time of writing this case-study, the intervention has 80,000 participants, and has moved over $30 million since the solution began. We expect those numbers to rise and scale up as promotions continue.
Financial wellbeing as a social impact problem continues to gain visibility and thoughtful attention on how to prevent or limit the burden on people’s lives. It is clear that the negative consequences affect the fully employed in addition to under- and unemployed individuals and families. Organizations seeking to provide welfare benefits to support the financial wellbeing of their employees, should begin by truly understanding the root of the obstacles their employees are facing. We believe that by combining methods and tools from behavioral science and human centered design, we can better pinpoint those obstacles to design meaningful solutions. In addition, behavioral research methods allow us to set benchmarks on the behaviors and outcomes that matter most and systematically improve our impact (reach, usage, efficacy, ROI) over time. The case study outlined above represents our continued pursuit in “doing good” by effectively serving the needs of our clients and the intended beneficiaries of the solutions we create together.
“Financial illiteracy is not an issue unique to any one population. It affects everyone: men and women, young and old, across all racial and socioeconomic lines. No longer can we stand by and ignore this problem. The economic future of the United States depends on it.”President’s Advisory Council on Financial Literacy
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