A national team of academic scholars and other experts concluded that 30 million workers in America — one in four — are seriously distressed and dissatisfied with their personal financial situations. Many, if not most, families say they live paycheck to paycheck. Inevitably this stress spills over to work. For instance, in 2012, roughly one in five employees admitted they had skipped work in the past year to address a financial problem. According to an Alliant study, a worker with financial problems spends 15 minutes per workday dealing with personal financial matters. This equates to 75 minutes per week, or 62.5 hours in a 50-week work year.

Stress imposes both a corrosive burden in the lives of employees and is a significant cost to employers. An employee who is stressed about money matters costs an employer about $400 due to reduced productivity and absenteeism. The link between employee wellness and their financial health becomes critical as corporate benefit programs shift more responsibility onto workers. This result should not be surprising however, given American employees’ pervasive lack of basic financial abilities. “Americans get close to a failing grade when it comes to understanding their finances and financial literacy,’’ said Gerri Walsh, president of the FINRA Investor Education Foundation.

Amidst the disappearance of traditional pensions, people have more responsibility for funding their own retirements, and the absence of adequate and appropriate investor education has clear costs. In this context, there is a strong case to be made in favor of programs that encourage employee financial well-being. The example of Staples is notable in this regard. By using vampire-themed and farming-based games, Staples has made planning for retirement and money management more appealing to its busy associates. With over 2,000 stores in 26 countries, a diverse workforce and increasingly short attention spans, Staples wanted a program that was not only comprehensive but also scalable and adaptable across a variety of work settings.

When Lisa Blasdale, Staples’ senior benefits manager, explored the underlying causes behind the enrollment in company benefits programs, she was surprised to find that many longtime Staples associates were struggling with debt or basic credit card issues. Staples then decided to refocus its efforts on fundamental financial management skills, emphasizing the need to manage spending, paying down high-interest debt, and the benefits of saving for retirement. The online games, Bite Club and Farm Blitz, which Staples offers to all employees, gives players a chance to manage a nightclub for vampires and a farm, leverage competition and the positive power of collaboration and peer-to-peer interactions.

In another financial wellness program at Staples, assistance was provided to employees to complete their own tax returns. The Tax Break program at Staples resulted in 32 percent improvement in employee retention. For each employee who participated in the program, the company saved $480 and incurred a cost of $75, resulting in an impressive 5.4 times return on investment.

As employees gain control of their financial lives, they become more competent and thereby do a better job. The employer efforts in helping employees build a good, strong financial future yields reciprocal commitment from employees. The increased loyalty improves morale and productivity plus attracts good talent. Further, financially empowered employees are more likely to appreciate the commonality of employer and employee interests and to understand the core values of the company. Investing in employee financial literacy simply makes dollars and sense.

It is simply smart business to provide employees a comprehensive workplace financial program. Providing easy access to financial education and advice helps employees keep the various elements of their personal lives in balance.

Pankaj Upadhyay for Progress Through Business,

Contact the Personal Finance Employee Education Fund (PFEEF) to access valuable resources on financial wellness programs: Act Now