Flex-Ed: Prioritizing wellness with FSA funds

It may be early in the year, but now is as good a time as any to start planning ahead so that you're not scrambling to use it all at the last minute. And if you're looking for a good way to utilize FSA funds, wellness is a good place to start. Keep in mind that your FSA funds can be used for your spouse and dependents too, so you can prioritize wellness for the whole family.

Although we're talking about using FSA funds in this article, you could also use HSA funds for any of these scenarios, too. But without yearly deadlines, there's isn't a need to figure out ways to use up an HSA. In the meantime, let's focus on flex spending.

Alleviate pain and protect your joints

Does "snap, crackle, pop" remind you more of your knees than a breakfast cereal? You can, of course, use your FSA to cover the out-of-pocket costs that go along with things like orthopedic care or physical therapy. But your FSA can go well beyond that when it comes to alleviating muscle and joint pain.

Although most supplements can't be purchased with FSA dollars, Glucosamine/chondroitin supplements are an exception (as are prenatal vitamins). You don't even need a doctor's note, although it's always wise to talk with your doctor before starting to take any sort of supplements.

Ergonomic items — like height-adjustable desks that allow you to stand while you work, anti-fatigue mats, and specialized keyboards — can also be purchased with FSA funds if you obtain a letter of medical necessity from your doctor. And things like knee and wrist braces, lumbar supports, and neck supports can be purchased with FSA funds even if you don't have a letter from your doctor.

And don't forget over-the-counter medications for pain relief that are fully eligible for purchase with FSA funds. For those looking to go the medicine-free route, there are a variety of drug-free pain relief items that can be purchased with an FSA.

Prioritize your mental health

Don't forget about your mental health. Mental health treatment is an essential health benefit under the Affordable Care Act, which means it's covered on all individual and small group health plans purchased since 2014.

Although large group plans aren't required to cover essential health benefits, they are subject to federal mental health parity requirements, which means that if they do offer mental health coverage — and most do — the benefit limitations can't be any less favorable than the benefits for medical/surgical treatment.

But that doesn't necessarily mean your insurance will pay for your mental health care. If you see a therapist, you'll likely have copays or need to meet your deductible — and that's assuming your therapist accepts your health insurance.

According to a study published in JAMA Psychiatry, only 55% of psychiatrists accept health insurance, whereas about 89% of other specialists do accept insurance. So mental health care can get expensive, even when you have high-quality health insurance.

That's where your tax-free funds can help. Keep in mind, however, that not all forms of therapy are considered medically necessary mental health care. As a general rule of thumb for FSA eligibility, the therapy has to be to treat a medical condition, as opposed to general wellness. But if your medical doctor writes a letter of medical necessity, the cost of various therapies, including hypnosis, can be reimbursed from an FSA.

Get a comprehensive physical

If your health insurance plan isn't grandfathered under the ACA, it covers a wide range of preventive care at no cost to you. But that doesn't mean that all preventive care is covered. During your checkup, you might choose to have some additional health and wellness tests that either come with some out-of-pocket costs or aren't covered at all by your health insurance. But by using your FSA, you'll be able to use pre-tax money to pay for the portion of your preventive care visit that your health plan doesn't fully cover.

Treat yourself!

If you've still got FSA funds leftover, remember you can buy yourself things like acupressure mats, soothing insoles, foot rollers and circulators, and even sunscreen, as long as it's SPF15+. That's if you have a specific medical need for these products, of course.

So if you find yourself with more FSA funds than expenses, keep in mind that there are plenty of wellness and self-care items that you can buy with your FSA funds before they expire. And don't forget to reevaluate your FSA contributions during open enrollment for the next plan year — it's still your money after all, and the goal is to optimize your contributions so that they cover your medical expenses but without too much left over.


New to FSAs? Need a refresher course in all things flex spending? Our Flex-Ed column gives you a dose of FSA Living 101, offering tips for making the most of your tax-free funds. Look for it every Thursday, exclusively on the FSAstore.com Learning Center.

Living Well

Fridays (with Benefits) - Are wellness programs really succeeding?

Normally, we lead off these Friday recaps with a quick introduction, setting the table for the news at hand. This week, we're going to change the format and lead with a quote from the article, instead.

"... research suggests most workplace wellness programs are a waste of money."

While we're not going to say we agree with this sentiment, this week's article does raise a few interesting points about these programs, and how they might be able to evolve to live up to their initial promise.

Why Workplace Wellness Programs Aren't Working - Serenity Gibbons, ThriveGlobal

According to author Serenity Gibbons, (an equal rights advocate and former assistant editor at the Wall Street Journal) current wellness programs are too focused on physical health, but aren't accounting for "the whole person." And, as a result, this lack of overall well-being is rendering these programs ineffective for TEAM wellness.

To drive this point home, Gibbons reminds us of a joint Harvard University/University of Chicago study that showed wellness programs had no impact on employee health improvement, employer health spending, or time off of work. In other words, the primary goals of wellness programs weren't being met.

To rectify this, Gibbons recommends a larger focus on some key areas -- areas that encompass overall wellness, and not just physical fitness. We obviously can't cover them all here (that's what the article link is for), so we'll just highlight some of the more-surprising suggestions made in the piece.

Working to prevent employee burnout

Moving past general mental and emotional wellness, Gibbons feels burnout is a major problem for today's workers. And that is often caused by a lack of direction and challenge coming from above. By establishing professional wellness goals within these programs, she feels employees will come to work more focused on both immediate work and long-term career goals. But this isn't just 'career coaching' -- it's reminding employees of their value, while valuing their own needs.

Spiritual guidance… at work?

This entry surprised me a bit, since it's rare to see religion or spirituality ever discussed within the workplace. But Gibbons feels strongly about how spiritual people tend to be more motivated and community-minded, which carries over to work ethic and performance.

While no one is suggesting employers should organize in-office worship -- spirituality is far too personal, after all -- Gibbons sees some benefit in allowing workers to take breaks for prayer, meditations or even organizing worship sessions, as long as it doesn't affect work or the workplace.

The article goes on to highlight more unique ways to address employee health. No one is doubting that healthier employees are generally happier ones, as well. But not all wellness programs are hitting the mark. Gibbons surprised us with some of her suggestions… and there's clearly a lot of conversation still to be had before wellness programs can be considered a nationwide success.


Fridays (with Benefits) is a weekly roundup of the latest headlines about employee benefits -- from FSAs to fitness programs and everything workplace wellness. It appears every Friday, exclusively on the FSAstore.com Learning Center. And for the latest info about your health and financial wellness, be sure to follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.


Fridays (with Benefits): SHRM's 2019 Employee Benefits Survey shows shifting wellness trends

In what has become one of our favorite annual traditions, the Society for Human Resource Management released its annual benefits survey at the organization's conference in Las Vegas. While there doesn't seem to be any "major revelations" about the state of employee benefits, the report did turn up some interesting facts that affect some of the things we do here.

But don't take our word for it - here's a direct link to the survey. Go take a look - we'll be here when you're done.

SHRM 2019 Employee Benefits Survey Results

Like we mentioned, there weren't any major surprises in this year's report -- we probably all agree that retirement and health benefits remain top-of-mind to employees across the workforce.

According to the survey, 85% of organizations are steadfast in offering PPO health care plans, but interest in high-deductible health plans (HDHPs) is on the rise, with significant growth in the adoption of health savings accounts (HSAs). In fact, 59% of surveyed organizations now offer HDHP options connected to savings. (An additional 19% offer HDHPs without the HSA option, as well.)

One interesting (and probably overdue) development we learned in the survey is that companies offering health insurance to part-time employees is a popular and growing tactic to help recruit and retain talented staff. It's not a fully fleshed-out offering just yet, since roughly ⅓ of companies offering these plans share the cost of coverage, but it's an encouraging step forward for a growing gig economy.

Another development that has us concerned, to be quite honest, is the lack of importance placed on wellness programs in the workplace. While there are concrete results that point to the effectiveness of employee wellness programs, companies aren't seeing it just yet.

The same concern applies to mental health coverage. In the last few years, there has been a precipitous drop in mental health options through employer-sponsored plans -- 91% of surveyed organizations offered this coverage just four years ago. But as of 2019, just 71% maintain the same levels of mental health options within their plans.

To be fair, this is as indicative of changes in health care plan structure (i.e., more plans include mental health as part of a core plan, rather than an extra benefit offered by the employer) but when we see a 20% dropoff in just half a decade, we take notice.

Maybe the 2019 Employee Benefits Survey wasn't entirely without some surprises, after all. But we'll let you determine that for yourself. The entire report is available to download, free of charge (and without any splash page or opt-in required) so we encourage you to check it out.


Fridays (with Benefits) is a weekly roundup of the latest headlines about employee benefits -- from FSAs to fitness programs and everything workplace wellness. It appears every Friday, exclusively on the FSAstore.com Learning Center. And for the latest info about your health and financial wellness, be sure to follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Living Well

Fridays (with Benefits) - 5/17/19 - Making wellness programs better

It's safe to say we love employee wellness programs around here. Not only do we cover them extensively in this column, but we even launched an entire retail site around it!

But that doesn't mean these programs don't have room for improvement. In this week's headline, Employee Benefit News dives into some proposed ways employers (and employees) can boost the effectiveness of these programs to make strides in their health and workplace performance.

Making wellness work: 5 ways employers can improve programs - Rebecca Madsen, Employee Benefit News

We knew wellness programs were growing in prominence, but we didn't realize how much. But Madsen opens this article with a (really) encouraging stat -- midsize and large employers are expected to spend an average of $3.6 million on well-being programs during 2019, according to a study by the National Business Group on Health (NGBH).

And why wouldn't they? Any investment in happier, more productive workers is a win for all involved. But even we were surprised by how quickly workers were adopting these initiatives into their lives. According to the article, UnitedHealthcare reported 57% of surveyed employees said workplace wellness has positively affected their lives.

So how do employers plan to boost that 57% statistic? By empowering employees to make the most of their wellness opportunities. Here are a few highlights that Madsen felt were important to make this happen.

Modify lifestyle choices

Looking beyond basic dietary advice, employers should consider ways to encourage healthier choices throughout the workday, such as having meetings while walking, offering onsite fitness equipment to use while working, or providing the option for a stand-up desk.

(And for the diet-conscious? Healthy food options and incentives to eat better, even with that awesome burrito place located right down the block.)

Make incentives matter

According to the article, mid-sized and large employers this year will offer an average per-employee well-being incentive of $762, according to the NBGH study. It seems a little high, but it might be the going price. UnitedHealthcare's survey found that, among people who said it would require an incentive for doing health-related activities, 53% said between $1 and $3 per day would motivate them to achieve that goal.

Support socializing

Health isn't just about diet and exercise. People need to like being in the workplace, and socialization plays a big role in making it happen. The article suggests that incorporating social components into your well-being programs will improve adoption and retention. Some of these strategies include walking groups, employee appreciation days and team-building activities such as volunteer events.

It's clear that wellness programs aren't going anywhere but up, in both reach and quality of offerings. But now it's important that employees don't treat these opportunities as "one off" situations, and actually incorporate them into the regular work routines. In other words, those walking meetings need to happen more than once, and in-office snacks shouldn't revert to donuts and chips as soon as the seasons change.


Fridays (with Benefits) is a weekly roundup of the latest headlines about employee benefits -- from FSAs to fitness programs and everything workplace wellness. It appears every Friday, exclusively on the FSAstore.com Learning Center. And for the latest info about your health and financial wellness, be sure to follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Living Well

Real Money: Taking stock of your mental health in the workplace

Taking care of your mental health should be as important as taking care of your physical health. After all, if you're not coping well in your daily life, it might affect your work, your relationships and even your peace of mind.

What if your job is really stressing you out, to the point where you're going to suffer from burnout, or the stress is a symptom of major anxiety or depression?

There is no shame in getting help. Seeking mental health screenings and other types of preventative measures is not only important, but might even be necessary. Of course, we're not doctors, so be sure to speak with a licensed medical professional before taking on any new wellness programs or making significant changes to your routine.

Keeping your emotions in check

While it's normal every once in a while to have a bad day at work, there are some emotions and symptoms that can indicate something more serious. For example, you can feel tired if you're working a lot, but constantly feeling tired to the point where you don't want to get out of bed isn't common.

Other signs include:

  • Extreme mood changes, like feelings of euphoria then prolonged feelings of irritability or anger
  • Drastic changes in eating habits
  • Consistently avoiding social activities
  • Excessive worry and fear
  • Inability to carry out daily tasks or handing daily challenges

If you're concerned, the first place to check is through your health care provider. This is because your employer may have a wellness program that includes mental health options like screenings, dependence counseling, depression workshops and proactive stress management courses. These are typically free and more employers are offering it to improve workers' lives, in and out of the office.

Getting a diagnosis

The first step to getting help is to get an accurate diagnosis from a professional and getting on a mental wellness plan. Seeing a mental health professional or going through a mental health screening isn't 100% accurate, so you may find that you want a second opinion, and that's okay.

After your assessment, a health care provider may develop a plan that includes medication, therapy or even simple lifestyle changes. While this can sound overwhelming, taking it one step at a time will help you get better.

Balancing therapy and medication

Not everyone is going to need medication or therapy, but it's a good idea to be open to the possibility. Luckily, both of these are covered by an FSA even if your insurance doesn't. FSA-eligible products and services include sessions with licensed psychologists, psychiatrists, counselors and social workers.

Even if your mental health professional suggests just some lifestyle changes, take those suggestions. For example, if you have a seasonal mental health disorder, using light therapy can help. Or if you require OTC medication on occasion, try it out and see how it affects you. Many of these types of products are FSA-eligible, so always check with your FSA provider to make sure.

We hope that you take your overall well-being into consideration. Work stress is fairly normal, but it's not worth it when it comes at the expense of your mental health. If you do find work is affecting you in negative ways or your mental health is affecting your work, speak to someone in your organization about how you feel. Employers want their employees to be happy and productive, so seek help if you need it.


Whether you budget week-to-week, or plan to use your FSA for bigger things, our weekly Real Money column will help you maximize your health and flex spending dollars. Look for it every Tuesday, exclusively on the FSAstore.com Learning Center. And for the latest info about your health and financial wellness, be sure to follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.