Business of Well-being

Global Challenges in Corporate Wellness - How to Turn Game Around

The 2014 "Global Survey on Health Promotion, Workplace Wellness and Productivity Strategies'' by Buck Consultants underlines the daunting challenges to implementing a global corporate wellness program and raises doubts about whether or not an effective global approach is possible. First, non-communicable diseases (NCDs) continue to rise globally.

Of all deaths worldwide, 63 percent stem from NCDs, many attributed to the 2.1 billion who are obese or overweight. Coupled with a growing senior population in many countries, NCDs are negatively affecting employee health, well-being and productivity on an unprecedented scale.

The good news is that a growing number of employers worldwide are recognizing their role in advancing employee health and well-being. More companies offer wellness programs to their employees in the United States than anywhere else, but regions around the world are gaining. Corporate wellness initiatives are relatively young.

Close to two-thirds report a corporate wellness strategy in place five years or less. Budget constraints are a key barrier to long-term commitments. Among the reasons for implementing corporate wellness  programs include reducing sick leave and increasing presenteeism as well as improving workforce morale and engagement, especially in Europe and Australia. Reducing healthcare costs is a prime reason in the United States. Other significant drivers are corporate image as well as recruitment and retention.

The main health issues driving wellness strategies globally are physical activity and stress. Nutrition/healthy eating is close behind. There are some interesting outliers; however, such as workplace safety in Asia and in Africa and the Middle East. Workforce morale and engagement coupled with rising mental illness concerns are major challenges for enterprises worldwide to address.

Employees are constantly over-stressed, pressured, worried about job security and often lack motivation, which affects productivity and customer service. The Global Survey also asked employers about what kind of corporate wellness programs they offer and how. Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) are very popular in North America, Australia and New Zealand. HR policies also play a major role in health promotion programs.

Numerous other components are prevalent in the different regions, such as biometric screenings, ergonomics, flu shots and health communications. Health risk appraisals (HRA) are offered by 56 percent of all employers, including 84 percent in the United States. Web portals, targeted e-mail, posters and flyers are common channel to communicate wellness.

The responsibility for executing programs lies, to a large degree, with human resources, but also includes - in manufacturing enterprises -- health, safety and environment and occupational health where one-fourth of the employers have a dedicated wellness coordinator on staff. Program managers are challenged to achieve participation rates greater that 50 percent for most activities.

Insufficient resources are an obstacle to gathering data. Only 53 percent measure specific outcomes from corporate wellness programs, an increase from 36 percent in 2012. Multinational employers make up 54 percent of those companies with global wellness strategies, a notable increase from 34 percent in 2007 and 49 percent in 2012. The main reasons for not having a global strategy are differing cultures, laws and practices as well as as lack of oversight.

Is a Global Approach to Wellness Feasible?

The Global Survey recognizes many challenges and differences among international regions and questions if a global approach or strategy is actually feasible. "Winning Strategies in Global Workplace Health Promotion: Study of Leading Organizations" by Buck Consultants and International Health Consulting, highlighted 13 multinational enterprises that have experienced success through global health promotion strategies. While the enterprises established diverse strategies, eight common elements were recommended:

  1. Establish a shared global value proposition aligned with key business goals. Ensure metrics are globally consistent, locally relevant.
  2. Articulate a value proposition that has sufficient emphasis on health and well-being factors, in addition to the financial business case.
  3. Spend adequate time and effort explaining the reasons, goals and benefits for providing a health promotion program.
  4. Drive a global strategy through a central or corporate function that provides guidance and technical support to local sites/ business  units.
  5. Engage local resources for cultural adaptation and implementation. Actively utilize local health professionals to help drive strategies regionally and link between corporate and local sites and business units.
  6. Provide global access to a core suite of health promotion programs and policies.
  7. Establish a healthy workplace index and/or menu of services toward which all sites should strive, and eventually be held unaccountable.
  8. Analyze and address the psycho-social working environment and how work is organized, in order to improve mental health and well-being.

The guidelines leave space for interpretation and adaption about the corporation's priorities and culture. It is clear that corporate leadership needs to take a central role to achieve quality control and deliver envisioned outcomes across the globe. At the same time, a fine balance between corporate guidance or policies and local input and resources is needed.

Most multinational enterprises are experimenting or fine-tuning this balance on a regular basis and only a small number have achieved stability around their global strategies. What constitutes an effective program is an ongoing discussion, not only in the United States, but in many other countries.

The World Health Organization proactively approached measures to create a healthy workplace through the Healthy Workplace framework (see figure), which provides a comprehensive and systematic approach with global relevance. Four main areas of influence are identified:

  1. Physical work environment
  2. Psychosocial work environment
  3. Personal health resources
  4. Enterprise-community involvement

The Healthy Workplace also follows a continual improvement process, e.g. highlighting the need for evaluation, and places leadership engagement and worker involvement as priorities. Maybe, most importantly, the the model exemplifies that promoting health at the workplace is both the right thing (ethical) and the smart thing (adds value) to do.

The Global Healthy Workplace Awards has helped to elevate awareness within the corporate community. Business and wellness program managers alike understand individualized lifestyle programs or occupational health policies alone will not lead to healthy workplaces and employees. Unfortunately, the majority of global employees still do not understand the comprehensive, integrated and systematic nature of wellness programs.

About the Author

Wolf Kirsten is founder and president of International Health Consulting based in Tucson, Ariz. and Hamburg, Germany. He is also a co-founder of the Global Healthy Workplace Awards and past president of the International Association of Worksite Health Promotion.

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