COVID-19 has workers paying more attention to their 401(k)s

Although COVID-19 has dealt a blow to many employees’ retirement behavior and optimism, there’s at least one bright spot: The pandemic has caused some participants to pay more attention to their retirement accounts and savings progress.

Although 60% of respondents in a new survey from provider Vestwell said their behavior regarding their 401(k) stayed the same over the last year, about one-quarter said they checked their account more often, 10% increased their contributions and 6% made investment changes. The provider surveyed more than 1,000 participants.

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“Employees showed a heightened awareness around their retirement plan balances in 2020,” says Ben Thomason, Vestwell’s executive vice president. “Fortunately, not many acted on their instincts to withdraw funds or implement near-term changes.”

Retirement has become a sensitive topic in the midst of COVID-19. Not only did some 401(k) balances drop significantly due to market volatility, but a handful of employers have halted or reduced retirement matches or are considering doing so. But Vestwell’s report is the latest indicator that employee interactions with their retirement plans have remained relatively stable despite financial hardships.

Despite that good behavior over the last year, Thomason warns that COVID-19 is still in full swing and has the potential to have more negative repercussions on employees’ retirement savings. Vestwell’s survey found that 5% of participants decreased their 401(k) contributions. Meanwhile, 7% of respondents took out a loan, hardship distribution or both in the past year, and of those who withdrew funds, 40% said the move was related to the financial impact of COVID-19. Another 10% said they considered taking out a hardship loan.

“Unfortunately, we’re not out of the woods yet, and we’re aware that this second wave of COVID-19 could bring with it some unavoidable decisions around tapping into savings,” Thomason says. “Money is a very sensitive topic, so we’re here to educate and support, but ultimately, how that money is managed is a decision that must be made based on individual circumstance.”

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Other research finds employees are suffering significantly more stress around finances and retirement due to COVID-19. A recent report from John Hancock Retirement, for instance, found employee financial stress has doubled since COVID-19 began. The number of individuals reporting high levels of financial stress rose from 11% pre-pandemic to 27% since the crisis struck, the survey of retirement plan participants found. Likewise, a Charles Schwab survey found that COVID-19 is driving employees’ anxiety about long-term retirement savings, prompting more to believe they’ll have to retire later than originally planned.

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Employers are a critical source for helping employees and encouraging them to stay on the right path, Thomason says, adding that they should provide a great deal of education to help alleviate concerns and questions around COVID and 401(k)s. “Participants are paying more attention, which makes it the perfect time for advisors to engage in meaningful ways,” he says.

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Kathryn Mayer
Kathryn Mayer is HRE’s former benefits editor and chair of the Health & Benefits Leadership Conference. She has covered benefits for the better part of a decade, and her stories have won multiple awards, including a Jesse H. Neal Award and honors from the American Society of Business Publication Editors and the National Federation of Press Women. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Denver.