The Global Wellness Institute’s July roundtable on workplace wellness strongly concurred that the future of global/multinational wellness initiatives is to throw out cookie-cutter programs and get beyond the U.S./Western roadmaps because delivering wellness successfully varies wildly by global region—not only because the health challenges vary so intensely worldwide, but also because each region has different wellness resources at their disposal and different entrenched traditions. And these regional hyper-specificities aren’t just interesting anecdotes—they can make or break programs.
Their collective advice: “live there, listen and learn” first.
Dr. Michael Roizen, chief wellness officer at the Cleveland Clinic, argued that the unique, genetically determined health profile of populations needs to be taken into account. For instance, as populations in China, India and the Middle East adopt our Western food and stress habits, their genetic profile hits them “much harder” with complications from obesity and diabetes—and that needs to be a top workplace focus.
Dr. Ken Pelletier, clinical professor of medicine, University of Arizona and University of California Schools of Medicine, shared how when their Corporate Health Improvement Program was rolled out internationally, how surprised they were by the extraordinary degree of specificity in each local environment. “In China, a diabetes risk appraisal that asks about white potato consumption will be met with, ‘What’s a potato?’ In Russia, a successful smoking cessation program needs to involve the grandmother. For India, birth complications are the number-one cost driver. And in countries in Southeast Asia (like India) if you exclude Ayurveda, you’re going to exclude the vast majority of the worker population. You cannot simply address the company and the individual; you have to adapt to the total culture.”
Nancy Board, strategic account director, Limeade, agreed, adding that it was her experience delivering wellness initiatives in 18 countries that confirmed the importance of abandoning a U.S.-centric way of thinking. “For instance, in high-density cities like Shanghai or Beijing, air quality and upper respiratory diseases are number-one issues, and in some areas of the world, women’s safety in the workplace, just being able to get to work, is the huge concern.”
Because it’s such a wide world of health realities, the current focus of wellness programs is (and has to be) different. Dr. Fikry Isaac, chief medical officer, Johnson & Johnson (which has had a global wellness program since 2007), noted that a focus on healthy eating, more physical activity and stress is right for the whole world, but the adoption and delivery of programs varies widely. “Adoption of workplace health programs in Asia-Pacific is very high, but you see more resistance in regions like Eastern Europe, where the culture, laws and lack of resources make it hard to deliver programs. The good news is that globally, workplace wellness is seen as a real attraction and retention differentiator, and multinationals have great influence on this market, mandating what’s out there and changing how it’s delivered.”
The experts shared numerous examples of how global workplace wellness approaches now vary. For instance, the U.S. may be out in front with smoking cessation, stress management and food choices but lags woefully behind with physical activity. Mim Senft, wellness director, Plus One Health Management, Optum, noted: “In India, the focus on women’s financial education/wellness is climbing, while in London we’re seeing bankers’ groups include mindfulness training for employees. And while it has been difficult to talk about emotional/mental wellbeing in high-stress Asia because of cultural norms, we are now seeing more of a focus on mental health in Japan. What’s most important differs dramatically in each region.”
And if the U.S. has had the luxury of taking a company-based “programmatic” approach, workplace wellness in Europe and elsewhere comes via government policy, and is more focused on the environment. Emily Dery, head of the Global Health Track at the Clinton Global Initiative, explained how important it is to work with public entities and local governments. For instance, members of the Clinton Global Initiative have launched a tobacco-free workplace challenge, which is successful because it can be adapted to a local context by working with local governments.
The future will also be about more global companies recognizing that cultures like China (with its millennia-old Traditional Chinese Medicine) and India (with its ancient system of Ayurveda) already know just a few things about maintaining wellbeing. Wellness programs need to focus on what’s available, accessible, affordable and evidence-based across global regions and draw on indigenous resources and traditions.
And if in the West we call all this “alternative medicine” and have been unusually slow to embrace even highly evidence-based “alternative” approaches in the workplace, that will change: benefits programs are already starting to include things like acupuncture.