The Overload Problem: “It’s Beyond Me!”

July 14, 2016 Steven Laird

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” – Henry David Thoreau, Walden

It’s kind of funny and ironic that, as a Millennial, I’ve started off with an almost 200-year-old quote by Henry David Thoreau. There is potentially nothing Millennials relate to less than Henry David Thoreau, except maybe a Duesenberg Model A.  Then again, I suppose I could have found a quote just as deep from a modern figure like Kanye West, but that’s easier said than done.

Jeff Siwik
“It’s clear today more than ever there is a need for an easily accessible Financial Wellness program in the workplace for everyone who routinely suffers from Information Overload.” Jeff Siwik, Associate, Wealth

Walden is one of the most famous accounts of simple living ever published. You know, simple living without all the complicated things like telegraphs, railroads, and sewing machines?  What Thoreau aspired to do was avoid the 1854 version of “Overload.”  With access to so many forms of media today, one common form of overload is Information Overload (IO).  IO, simply put, is the constant exposure to too much information or data.

TMI (Too Much Info)

Nicolas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, makes this analogy when writing about his recent, subconscious tendency to want to skim article titles instead of read the content, “Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words.  Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”

He elaborates on his problem, “I used to find it easy to immerse myself in a book or a lengthy article. My mind would get caught up in the twists of the narrative…That’s rarely the case anymore.  Now my concentration starts to drift after a page or two.  I get fidgety, lose the thread, and begin looking for something else to do.”

(Side note: give yourself a round of applause if you’ve made it this far in my article).

So why does IO matter? It matters because IO causes feelings of stress and anxiety.  When there’s infinite information available, people don’t know where to begin.  They risk picking up a brand new topic right in the middle and finding themselves way over their heads with unfamiliar jargon, complicated discussion, and in-depth articles.

I give up!

This is the feeling many employees struggling with finances report when they start to research financial education.

Imagine knowing absolutely nothing about finance, economics, or investments. Despite that, you feel brave one afternoon and load a personal finance website.  You see the following titles: “Stocks Extend Post-Brexit Rally on Manufacturing Report,” “4 Top Funds for Investing in Emerging-Markets Debt,” and “Average US 30-Year Mortgage Falls to 3.48 Percent.”

It’s no wonder people get discouraged when they try to get up to speed on financial education. Combine the symptoms of IO, a less-than-ever attentive brain, and a topic most outside of the financial sector would consider boring, and you have a recipe for personal finance disaster.

In an Information Systems Research Journal study called “Information Overload and the Message Dynamics of Online Interaction Spaces”, authors Jones, Ravid, and Rafaeli came to two important relevant conclusions about people’s behavior when faced with IO.

1) Users are more likely to respond to simpler messages than very complex subject treatments, and

2) Users are more likely to terminate participation as the overloading of subject material increases.

Brandon Aikens, a recent graduate from a Pennsylvania University, after his experience researching 401(k) plans, said: “My knowledge is so [pause] limited on these complex points. When I go to look deeper, it just seems like it’s all over my head.  Maybe there’s too much out there or maybe there are not enough good, starting resources.”

3 Ways to Eliminate IO

It’s clear today more than ever there is a need for an easily accessible Financial Wellness program in the workplace for everyone who routinely suffers from IO. Derived from the research done by Carr, Jones, Ravid, and Rafaeli, the following are three simple points that will help eliminate IO from a Financial Wellness program.

  1. Content– The content needs to be level-appropriate. A 2013 Aegon study confirmed that only 20% of respondents were “very able” to understand current financial matters. That means presenting the information in a number of simple blocks that build on each other to improve understanding. Remember, users are more likely to respond to simpler messages. Also, all financial jargon should be clearly defined. The ultimate goal of a Financial Wellness program is to help those suffering from financial stress and likely, the ones suffering are the ones with the most limited financial knowledge.
  2. Comprehensiveness- The program should be comprehensive while taking certain factors into account such as the demographic makeup of the workforce. Eating well, exercising, and quitting smoking are “one size fits all” themes to Health Wellness, but a Financial Wellness Program is more complex. Any organization will have employees dealing with different challenges simultaneously. One new hire may be struggling to repay student debt while another employee is preparing for transition into retirement. A Life Cycles approach that has something for everyone is widely regarded as the easiest to navigate – rather than having a bunch of different Google searches open at one time which might trigger feelings of IO. Financial Basics, Budgeting Tools, Debt Management, Health Care Options, and Retirement Savings would provide a broad range of tools applicable to anyone’s personal situation.
  3. Organization– Remember, although the program should be comprehensive, users are more likely to “drop out” as the overloading of subject material increases. Ideally, the Life Cycle organization method limits that information to only what is applicable at any point in someone’s life. There is no reason to be linked from Budgeting to Funeral Planning in a matter of seconds. Highlighting key points and providing statistics such as “People like you are saving XX%…” provide guidance in an IO-free way. If the program offers access to free financial advice from an outside vendor, clearly indicate that information on each page.

Why you need a program

If you are a sponsor and are not sure whether you should implement a Financial Wellness program for your employees, keep in mind the risks of a workforce dealing with financial stress – decreased productivity, absenteeism, higher health care costs, among others. Employees, especially early in their careers, are extremely at-risk for developing these characteristics.  We are a mobile generation as it is, and if our current employers are not providing the financial support we need, chances are a competitor is.  A strong Financial Wellness program will help you attract and retain the top caliber talent your organization needs to flourish.

Financial education doesn’t have to be a scary subject when approached correctly. However, it will take the efforts of employers and the patience of employees to ensure we are all working happy and (financially) healthy.

 

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