Wellness Programs — Global or Local?

Jacque Vilet – Vilet International

Many companies are coming to the realization that the health and wellness of their global workforce is an important issue.   Wellness programs that began in the U.S. or Europe, typically at headquarters locations, are now expanding globally.

Towers Watson recently released their 2011 survey entitled “Multinational Workforce Health”.  The survey included 149 participants representing 5.2 million employees in 37 countries.

The results show that while only about one-third (32%) of all respondents currently have a global workforce health strategy in place (marginally up from 26% in 2009), nearly half (47%) plan to adopt one within one to two years.

Health care costs continue to rise globally.  In some countries, government-sponsored health benefits are being scaled back due to fiscal crises as well as the burden of providing for a rapidly aging population.

Reasons for a growing emphasis on employee wellness vary significantly by region. In Asia, the focus is on the need to compete for top talent, while cost containment continues to be the primary concern in the U.S.  Multinationals based in Europe are interested in reducing absenteeism and improving employee health and safety.

Towers Watson also identified the top 5 wellness programs being offered.  They  include:

  • Health screenings
  • Vaccinations
  • Mental health/stress management
  • Subsidized fitness clubs
  • Healthy eating – cafeteria/vending machines

Adapting Wellness for the Global Workforce
Just as the reasons for wellness programs varies by region, the type of program offered by employers may need to vary as well, due to cultural issues, local norms and employee preference.

For example, a company I worked for in the U.S. provided a comprehensive health screening consisting of blood testing for up to 30 diseases.    When the company decided to implement a wellness program in 20 other countries, it was assumed that the same program would be implemented.  The program was appreciated outside the U.S., especially the company’s concern for their employees’ well-being, but they did not accept blood screening as consistent with local norms.

In Taiwan, it was suggested that an annual physical exam would be much more appreciated, as it was not something covered by either their national health coverage or the company’s supplemental health insurance.

In Sweden, the clinics that were contacted to provide the blood screening were puzzled, and indicated such an approach was inconsistent with their usual approach, which is an annual ergonomic assessment of each employee’s workspace, as well as a one session evaluation of psychological health.

Employees in Singapore stated they would rather have a subsidized fitness club membership.    Other countries were silent in expressing their views and the U.S. program was implemented.

Everything went as planned elsewhere except in Italy.   Three men fainted during the blood testing and were quite embarrassed.   Cots had to be purchased before testing resumed, to provide a place for the “faint of heart” to recuperate.   Due to the embarrassment over the situation as well complaints by the Country Manager that local input had not been sought beforehand, blood testing was eliminated as part of the wellness program there.

Global Success Stories
Last year, we published a summary of the 2010 NFTC International HR Conference held in Houston in March every year, which included summaries of the approaches taken by both Chevron and Intel towards expanding their wellness programs into markets such as Nigeria and China.  It’s worth a look if you missed that post.

A word of advice – when planning an implementation of global wellness program, it is recommended to involve local staff in each country to provide appropriate suggestions, and to champion the program locally.  Evaluate the specific health risks that present the biggest opportunity for your company, and realize they might be different in each place.  In other words, adapt to the local market to ensure acceptance and success.

Share Your Experience
Does anyone have any stories to share regarding their company’s experience with global wellness programs?   If so, please share in the “Comments” field below.

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