Stress Drives Wellness Strategies in Many Countries

By Kathy Gurchiek Sep 23, 2010
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Stress is the top health issue driving wellness strategies in Africa/the Middle East, Asia, Australia, Canada and Europe, according to preliminary pre-publication resultsfrom the National Business Group on Health’s (NBGH) fourth annual global wellness survey. The findings were released Sept. 15, 2010, at the NBGH conference in Washington, D.C.

Among eight regions surveyed, only Latin America and the United States cited health issues other than stress as driving their wellness strategies. Employers in those countries identified physical activity as the top health issue driving their wellness initiatives.

In the U.S., addressing employee stress ranked sixth as a wellness driver, behind nutrition, chronic disease, obesity and high blood pressure.

Buck Consultants conducted the survey of 1,245 employers in 47 countries during May, June and July 2010.

Only a slight majority (54 percent) of employers surveyed have a global wellness strategy. Among those without a global strategy, 60 percent cited differing cultures, laws and practices across regions as the reason.

Employers that have a global wellness strategy said it is part of their global branding and benefits strategy; they like the standardization and the quality control a global strategy offers; they can leverage best practices, there is an economy of scale as they deal with fewer vendors; and they desire to be a global employer of choice.

The top employer objective driving wellness initiatives differs:

  • Africa/Middle East: morale and engagement.
  • Asia: work ability—the ability to retain employees, including older workers.
  • Australia: workplace safety.
  • Canada, Europe and Latin America: productivity/presenteeism.
  • United States: health care costs.

At Cisco, the company works closely with local HR, relying on it to:

  • Help assess local wellness needs.
  • Help determine who is eligible for its wellness programs in each country.
  • Determine the appropriate communication used and disseminate that communication.
  • Advise or lead any in-country work council approach.
  • Participate in quarterly meetings to monitor progress of the wellness strategies and suggest ways to improve it.
  • Help monitor programs and ongoing promotional efforts.

Cisco works closely with local HR to understand and implement country-specific wellness strategies, said Agnieszka “Aggie” Siemko, benefits program manager at Cisco.

South Africa, for example, is the only one of Cisco’s 16 locations where disease management programs are offered, she said during the survey discussion. Cisco offers employee assistance programs (EAPs) in 15 of the countries where it has employees; an EAP program is not offered at its locations in Italy.

EAPs Top Stress Reduction Strategy

Offering an employee assistance program is the main strategy that 73 percent of employers around the globe are using to address employee stress. Leadership training (53 percent) and physical activity programs (50 percent) are the other top strategies.

It was unclear how respondents interpreted “leadership training,” said Wolf Kirsten, who spoke about the findings during the conference session. Kirsten is on the board of the International Association of Worksite Health Promotion and is founder and president of International Health Consulting in Berlin.

However, management and leadership development at Nokia includes emphasizing how its leaders serve as role models in addressing personal and organizational well-being and coaches managers on well-being, according to Jacque Canfield of Nokia, global health and safety manager supporting the North America and Latin America Nokia facilities.

A well-being questionnaire that Nokia developed with researchers from Stanford University and the Helsinki University of Technology and piloted with its global HR team found that stress level in its global company is relatively high. Symptoms include difficulty concentrating, irritability and sleep problems.

While the questionnaire showed that job and life satisfaction is high at Nokia and that employee relationships with managers are good, Canfield said, work is not restricted to business hours and employees don’t recover properly from work during evenings and weekends.

In addition to its focus on management’s role in addressing stress, Nokia offers well-being webinars to employees, stress management training and a portal of health information that employees can access to assess their health risks and manage their health. Nokia offers peer support groups, programs on how to face change, health services counseling, gyms, fitness classes and hobby clubs.

Nokia found that employee use of EPAs takes place mostly in the Americas and Asia and less frequently in Europe, where some employees fear that their privacy will be invaded.

Health and productivity are taking on a greater focus outside the United States, Canfield noted. Health care costs are expected to rise around the world—even in markets where health care is largely publicly financed.

There is an increased emphasis, she said, on how an employee’s level of well-being can sustain or erode their engagement as employers see the deep connection between physical and mental health and as they recognize how excessive work hours, lack of balance between work and home, and fear of job loss can impact organizations.

Kirsten noted that in Spain and Italy, employers are obligated to assess how the work environment impacts employee health. Legislation in Spain requires evaluations of psychosocial risk management and development of a “coherent overall prevention policy” covering technology, working conditions, social relationships, working environment and how work is organized.

He said that at France Telecom, where dozens of employees have committed suicide since January 2008, the company has taken steps that include installing a crisis call center and adding psychological support, training managers on how to identify depression better, and structuring bonuses for top managers to reflect such criteria as employee satisfaction and absenteeism rates.

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News.

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