International wellness needs a balanced approach

Wellness, or rather the lack of wellness, is a worldwide issue. An unhealthy lifestyle is no longer something specific to the West; obesity has doubled worldwide since 1980.

Adding to that is stress, which the World Health Organization has called the ‘health epidemic of the 21st century’.

Traditionally, employers have managed health by providing isolated medical benefits. However, as benefits costs have continued to rise, employers now have to balance providing the best benefits package with a need to contain cost.

A good wellness programme will enable an employer to measure and manage the health risks of its employee population, and will help to reduce costs.

Even in countries where healthcare costs have not increased as dramatically as they have done in the US, for example, or where medical costs are largely covered by social taxes, there are still economic pressures on headcount and payroll costs. A focus on wellness can help employers everywhere by reducing absenteeism and increasing productivity.

Best practice

Employees can become healthier through awareness, education and specific behavioural changes. A good programme will empower employees to make good health choices for themselves.

The best plans work holistically to address all areas of a healthy lifestyle, including physical, mental, emotional, social, environmental, and even spiritual needs.

A typical wellness programme may include: health assessments: a simple questionnaire can help employees to identify their own illness risk factors, and therefore provide motivation for change; an employee assistance programme (EAP), which is an assessment, short-term counselling and referral service designed to provide employees assistance in managing life problems; work-life plans, which are designed to create more flexible, responsive work environments, supporting commitments to family and home; health screening: health risks can be reduced if identified early by screening key factors such as cholesterol, glucose, blood pressure, and body mass index (BMI). The use of screening varies significantly around the world, and even the measures used differ from country to country.

A wellness programme may also include nutrition and fitness support. Given the time spent at work, employees make many health choices in the workplace. Employers can help by making healthy options available. This could be as simple as setting up a walking club after work, or providing more nutritious snacks.

Stress-awareness training and health coaching can also be included in a wellness programme. Awareness training can help employees to recognise and manage stress, at home and in the workplace, and coaching can help an employee to identify and work on good health habits. Coaching can be focused on general lifestyle changes, or designed to help with a specific challenge, such as weight management or stopping smoking.

Points to consider

When developing an international wellness programme, employers should consider:

  • Strategy: be clear from the start about what the programme is meant to achieve, and how success will be measured.
  • Engagement: a successful programme will be advocated by leaders, and will be designed to inspire employees to take part. Ideally, make it interesting and fun for everyone to get involved.
  • Sensitivity: a good wellness programme must be sensitive to local issues and cultural attitudes. It should be designed to meet specific local needs. Health risks vary substantially by country, as do the legal issues affecting what employers can do.
  • Partnering: many specific local factors need to be considered before rolling out a plan, and it may make sense to outsource to an organisation with on-the-ground experience in the countries concerned.
  • Communication: develop a comprehensive communication plan, taking care to account for language ability and cultural differences. Ideally, make it a special promotion and create a ‘brand’ that employees will notice.
  • Technology: make the most of technology available to reach employees. Some providers offer online analysis tools to generate information on the key health issues affecting a workforce.
  • Evaluation: set up measures to evaluate whether the project has been a success. Review regularly, and amend as necessary, keeping the wellness programme alive and healthy.

Sally Hart is executive director of the International Benefits Network, a network of independent employee benefits consultants operating in more than 70 countries around the world.