International reward: Wellbeing strategy needs local input

If you read nothing else, read this …

  • Nearly one-third (32%) of multinationals have a global wellbeing strategy and 47% plan to launch one in the next two years, according to a 2011 Towers Watson survey.
  • Such strategies can improve productivity, reduce healthcare costs and bring consistency to communicating health.
  • Employers should research the multitude of different legislation, health risks and customs in each location.
  • Another good piece of advice for employers is to establish relationships with, and get input from, local managers in the region to gain a better understanding of the culture.

A global employee wellbeing strategy will pay dividends but needs some local research, says Jenny Keefe

Global markets can be tough to crack. Many multinationals might prefer to have a single wellbeing strategy for everywhere from Shanghai to Sao Paulo, but employers need to do their research before launching a worldwide masterplan.

According to Francis Coleman, a senior international consultant at Towers Watson, international wellbeing strategies can pay off. “The advantages are improved productivity, reduced healthcare costs, and increased staff attraction and retention in growth markets,” he says. “It also gives a consistent approach to communicating health and educating employees on behaviours and risks.”

Of the 150 multinationals surveyed for Towers Watson’s report Workforce health strategies: A multinational perspective, published in May 2011, 32% have a global wellbeing strategy and 47% plan to launch one in the next two years.

Meeting needs

So which wellbeing schemes could have a worldwide reach? The answer depends on an organisation’s industry, demographics and locations. “One size does not fit all,” says Coleman. “It is difficult to say what works best. We have seen tobacco cessation, weight management and biometric screenings rolled out globally. The number one health risk reported by employers is stress and mental health. Employee assistance programmes (EAPs) have been used worldwide, but they may not be meeting all needs in that area.”

Employers that want to launch a global wellbeing scheme must first decide what outcomes they want to achieve. Alan King, president of EAP provider Workplace Options, says: “Most importantly, employers need to formulate and articulate the scheme’s goals. Many start with only an idea and fail to think through the scheme’s design. What do they want it to achieve – locally, regionally and globally? How will it be positioned? Who will manage and oversee it? Who will pay for it?”

The trick is to think global, but act local. An international wellbeing strategy involves running schemes that cater for local health risks and laws. Dr Wolfgang Seidl, head of health management consulting for Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA) at Mercer, says: “A global strategy does not equate to dictating the precise make-up of the wellness interventions in different geographies. Only a global strategy adapted to local needs and availability of resources will meet people’s requirements and be endorsed locally.”

One of the most common failings is lack of research. Giles Tomsett, managing director of wellbeing provider Healthways UK, says: “Employers need to understand the local healthcare system, local workers’ pay and benefits systems, and other points unique to the country. They need to know what is controlled by the state, what is controlled at municipal level, and what is mandatory and discretionary to the company site leadership.”

Communications must also be adapted. “Be language, data and culturally sensitive,” says Tomsett. “Respect the country in which the schemes are delivered by providing them in its language and in a manner sensitive to its culture. This includes telephone, web, written, and face-to-face communications.”

Local input

Speaking to managers in the region is also an important part of launching a global strategy, says Tomsett. “Local people have the best handle on their own needs, plus the trust and respect of their peers. Schemes can be developed centrally, but there needs to be local input, leadership and delivery. Work to establish trust and acceptance, even if it means launching schemes more slowly.”

Developing personal relationships can make the difference between success and failure, he adds. “Do not miss the opportunity to break bread together, share a high antioxidant red wine for your health and get to know each other. In many cultures, this is the only way business gets advanced.”

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