Employees as a whole made significant improvements to their finances in 2010, despite a tepid economic recovery and sluggish rebound of job and real estate markets, according to a new study.

The study, by workplace financial education provider Financial Finesse, found that employees made improvements in all areas of finance. Calls to Financial Finesse’s financial helpline about proactive planning issues outnumbered short-term, crisis management calls, with retirement planning calls jumping from 15 percent in 2009 to 24 percent in 2010. In a parallel trend, debt-related calls fell from 21 percent in 2009 to 16 percent in 2010, and calls about cash management declined from 17 percent to 14 percent over the same time period.

“Employees are the shining light of this recovery,” said Financial Finesse CEO Liz Davidson in a statement. “They are making far more progress than the economy as a whole, creating personal recoveries for themselves amidst what is proving to be a slow economic recovery.”

Davidson believes that a healthy level of financial stress is actually driving this phenomenon, citing brain research that shows that people make their best decisions under optimal stress levels, where they are under enough pressure to focus and prioritize, but not so much that they are in a state of panic.

“Consumers were no longer in the crisis management mode they were in during ’08 and ’09,” Davidson said. “But they had enough of a wakeup call with the recession to take action to improve their finances, and many have developed new habits as a result. Once good habits form, the chances of lasting behavioral change go way up. That’s what we think we’re seeing among the more motivated employees who use our services—a changing view about money and its role in their lives.”

Davidson noted that employees were more proactive about their finances in 2010 than the company had expected. “We saw them begin to take more control in the fourth quarter of 2009 but didn’t expect the momentum to continue at such a high level throughout 2010,” she said.

Davidson cautioned against complacency, however, noting that employees’ new commitment to their finances isn’t enough to avoid the major crisis that is threatening potential long-term recovery.

In a trend the company has seen since it began tracking the research, “employees continue to be grossly underprepared for retirement,” said Davidson. Over 82 percent of employees reported that they are not on track to meet their retirement goals. “Employees are on the right path, but much more change is needed in order for us to avoid a retirement crisis that will come to a head as more Baby Boomers near retirement age with insufficient assets to retire. After health care, the second most pressing topic for most HR and benefits managers is the cost of employees delaying retirement.”

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