The number of global wellness programs has grown significantly over the last five years according to a survey by Buck Consultants in 2012. The survey included 1,356 companies in 45 countries representing 17 million employees. The results showed that 49% have a global wellness strategy, up from 34% in 2008. No doubt about it --- wellness programs have gone global.
What is driving the expansion?
In the U.S. wellness programs are about increasing productivity and cutting costs. Countries with government-sponsored health benefits are scaling them back due to shaky economies as well as the burden of providing for rapidly aging populations. This is putting more pressure on private industry to "pick up the slack”.
In addition some governments are now enacting legislation that requires employers to cover the well-being of their employees. In fact, the European Union has passed legislation that makes employers responsible for the psycho-social wellness of their employees. Abu Dhabi mandates that employers take care of their employees from both physical and psychological standpoints.
In addition to the above, here are some other things driving global wellness programs today:
In the past productivity wasn’t quite so near the top as a driving force. In emerging countries a high value is placed on employers who support health. It’s a differentiator in terms of attraction, retention and engagement because it’s not common practice among local companies.
Here are the top health risks by region:
In taking a strategic approach to wellness, employers need to customize their programs, depending on location, specific health issues, and demographics to address local needs. They shouldn’t be swayed by "best practices" or what looks good. Offering gym memberships and healthy lifestyle information online is the easy thing to do --- but it may not really address each company’s unique health needs.
Before talking to wellness vendors, companies should start by examining the biggest health risks in their employee population --- the ones that cost the most in medical claims and productivity. These include claims, age, gender, trends by disease/health problem and claims with highest cost by illness. This will give valuable information on how to focus a wellness program to attack these particular health problems.
Just as the health reasons for wellness programs will vary by region, the way the program is delivered by employers will need to vary as well, due to cultural issues and local norms.
For example, a company headquartered in the U.S. implemented a global wellness program in 30 countries. The program --- in all countries --- started with a comprehensive health screening consisting of blood testing for up to 30 diseases. The wellness program in general was appreciated by employees outside the U.S. However... the blood screening was not accepted in some countries as consistent with local culture and norms. This company found it out the hard way.
Everything went as planned in each country except in --- well, a country in Europe where the men are known to be very "macho." 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 halted. The company went back to the drawing board to figure out how to deliver the program in a manner that would be more culturally appropriate.
An issue that everyone thinks/worries about is: Are global wellness programs worth it? Do they really cut healthcare costs?
Although some published results have convinced observers that there is probably some sort of financial return, the lack of objectivity in the tools and terms used have convinced some that there’s no way to arrive at a definitive answer for this question. The belief is that while wellness programs are intuitively worthwhile, a nice idea socially, and a nice perk --- the cost savings may be negligible.
Hmm... looks like discussing the ROI of these programs might be a good subject for another post.
Jacque Vilet, President of Vilet International, has over 20 years’ experience in Global Human Resources with major multinationals such as Intel, National Semiconductor and Seagate Technology. She has managed both local/ in-country national and expatriate programs and has been an expat twice during her career. Her true love is working with local national issues. Jacque has the following certifications: CCP, GPHR, HCS and SWP as well as a B.S. and M.S in Psychology and an MBA. She belongs to SHRM, Human Capital Institute and World at Work. Jacque has been a speaker in the U.S., Asia and Europe, and is a regular contributor to various HR and talent management publications.