Participants in 401(k) plans are making better decisions, according to a new report from Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

Improved plan “wellness” was especially evident in the fourth quarter of last year, a period that not-so-coincidentally also is the health care open enrollment period for most employees.

Year-over-year, BofA Merrill’s proprietary 401(k) business saw over 955,000 employees start or increase contributions to their 401(k) plans—a 6% jump from 2011 and a 9% improvement from 2010. Moreover, loans (130,000 to 123,000) and withdrawals (184,000 to 170,000) were down from 2011 to 2012. Those were all indicators of improved participant behavior, the company reported.

What’s more, the results in the fourth quarter stood out from the rest of the year. From January through September 2012, “average monthly positive contribution actions” (contribution starts or increases) were 54,000. Then, in the last three months of 2012, that monthly average jumped by 270%, to 200,000 positive actions a month.

The difference, according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch, has been the company’s concerted effort to synchronize 401(k) enrollment and annual health care open enrollment. “Each year, many employees engage in some way with their annual health benefits,” the report points out. “When plan sponsors present employees with an easy ‘one-click’ option to enroll in or make a contribution change to their 401(k) plans during the annual health benefit process, we have seen significant increases in plan participation among new employees and in plan contributions among existing participants.”

Such results indicate widespread employee interest in benefits during annual health care open enrollment, an interest that extends to retirement plans. Advisors can take advantage of this increased awareness to urge clients to maximize contributions to employer-sponsored plans, if they’re not already doing so. For employees who want to save more for retirement than employer plans allow, open enrollment season near year-end may be an excellent time for advisors to offer other retirement investment opportunities to such clients.

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