A man sitting in front of a computer with bar graphs on the screen.

Millions of Americans are feeling financial stress these days, which can have all sorts of ripple effects, including causing you to lose sleep, leading you to borrow too much, and hurting your job productivity. 

It's that last issue, especially, that has prompted a growing number of companies to launch so-called financial wellness programs as a workplace benefit. These services provide workers with financial help on a variety of pocketbook issues, including credit card debt, budgeting, and paying down student loans.

According to a 2017 survey by benefits consultants Alight Solutions, almost 25 percent of employers have a financial wellness program in place, and almost half are in the process of creating one. Some three out of four firms with more than 10,000 employees now offer a financial wellness program, according to a recent study by the Employee Benefits Research Institute.

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These programs vary widely, with some employers offering online guidance through articles or video on a few topics, and others providing a panoply of services both online and in person, including workplace seminars or help by phone.

"Financial wellness programs tend to be a hodgepodge of standardized tools and services offered by existing health and retirement services providers," says Jana Steele, a senior vice president for investment consultant Callan.

If you're interested in receiving financial wellness assistance, start with your human resources department, which probably offers a website that highlights the program offerings. But be sure to check who provides these services. Though most are free, some programs may push you to outside vendors that may charge fees, says Mark Struthers, a certified financial planner with Sona Financial in Chanhassen, Minn., and an expert on financial wellness programs.

If your employer offers a program, consider the kind of financial help you want and whether your company's services are a good fit for your goals. (For workers who don't have this type of benefit, or aren't pleased with their employer's offerings, you may want to look for help elsewhere; more on that below.) Here are five key guidelines to keep in mind before you enroll in a financial wellness program.

Get Help With Credit Card Debt First

Americans are carrying an average credit card balance of $6,375, up 3 percent from 2017, which is a record high, according to Experian, a consumer data and crediting reporting company. Interest rates on that debt have been rising, recently averaging 17.15 percent vs. 14.96 percent three years ago.

For those struggling with hefty balances, your main focus should be on developing a plan to reduce the balance. “Those issues lead to the most stress, the most missed work, and the biggest decrease in performance," Struthers says.

And until you get that debt under control, you won't be able to make much progress on your other financial goals. The key is to develop a budget, based on your available cash flow, that will enable you to pay down your debt and rebuild your credit, Struthers says. 

Some two-thirds of employers offer budgeting and credit card help, or are likely to do so soon, Alight Solutions data show. The services your employer provides may include connecting you with outside credit counselors to determining your credit score and repayment programs. (For advice on improving your credit, see our articles here and here.)

Tackle Student Loan Debt

For many workers, especially millennials, college loan debt can be a bigger burden than credit card debt. The average loan balance grew to $28,650 in 2017, according to the Institute for College Access and Success, a nonprofit group. Almost half of workers say they want help with student loans, according to Alight Solutions.

Only a small number of employers—11 percent—currently provide help with navigating your payment options, however. That's up from 6 percent the previous year, and about 15 percent of firms say they are likely to add this service, Alight's survey shows.

For most student loans, the only significant relief is through federal repayment options that lower monthly costs, according to the nonprofit group Student Debt Crisis. For some programs, such as public service loan forgiveness, the rules can be confusing and complex.

If your employer provides this benefit, be sure to ask how the expert is being paid. Some vendors may have incentives to push you into refinancing your student loans, which may not be the best strategy for you. You can find out more about student loan repayment at the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau's website; and for more tips, see this article.

Boost Your Retirement Savings

Financial stress is stopping about one-third of Americans from saving for retirement, according to a recent Harris Poll. But most employers offer retirement guidance that can help you get on the right track.

For example, someone who can't contribute the ideal amount to a 401(k) may be directed to gradually increase contributions over time, perhaps when you get a raise. Running those numbers on an online savings calculator, or a consultation with a plan provider, can provide reassurance that your account balance will improve.

If you don't have a 401(k), or you need to catch up, the program may also direct you toward a traditional or Roth IRA for additional savings. Other financial wellness offerings such as budgeting tools, as well as advice for debt reduction, can help you free up more cash that you can stash away toward retirement. 

Make the Most of Financial Coaching

Your financial wellness program is likely to provide tons of data and advice on improving your finances. But executing the plan is still your responsibility. "Even with the best programs, it's up to you to stick to a budget," says Rob Austin, head of research at Alight Solutions.

So it's worth checking to see what ongoing support the program provides, such as phone counseling or online chat sessions. You may even be able to access more comprehensive financial advice—more than 40 percent of employer plans provide one-on-one investment advisory services, according to a survey by Callan (PDF). 

Consider Outside Help

Keep in mind, it's still not clear whether financial wellness programs are effective in helping employees solve their money problems and build more savings. Many of these programs are still works in progress, with some employers unsure about the participation rates or even what services are being offered, according a 2017 study by the Center for Social Development at Washington University (PDF).

If you aren't satisfied with your employer's wellness plan, or if none is offered, look for help elsewhere. One option is to work with a fee-only certified financial planner, who can give you comprehensive advice. Make sure the adviser will act as a fiduciary, someone who will put your interests first. Good places to start your search are the Garrett Planning Network, which lists fee-only planners who are available by the hour, and the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors, a group of fee-only advisers.