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Multinationals Bring Wellness Plans to Europe

October 15, 2006
Related Topics: Health and Wellness, Latest News
Corporate wellness programs normally evolve out of an employer's need to cut health care costs. That was the case at American Standard Cos., which introduced a wellness program for its 20,000 U.S. employees in July 2005.

The Piscataway, New Jersey-based manufacturer's new program includes health risk assessments and voluntary on-site screenings. Employees can save up to $500 a year in health care premiums by participating. For 2005, the company saw savings of $1.1 million to $1.6 million on chronic disease management alone.

Now the company wants to roll out the program in Europe, though this time it's not about costs.

"One might assume that wellness programs are not as important in places like Western Europe" because of socialized health care, says Larry Costello, senior vice president of human resources at American Standard, which makes bathroom and kitchen products, air conditioning systems and vehicle braking systems. "We believe that by doing this we will have a more productive workforce and they are going to want to invest in us."

Company officials in Europe have been calling their American counterparts about the U.S. wellness program because they see it as a way to differentiate themselves from other employers, says Heidi Lattig, who manages American Standard's U.S. health and wellness program.

American Standard is among several multinational companies planning to introduce wellness programs in Europe during the next several months. While only 16 percent of multinationals offer some type of program to promote healthy living among employees, 28 percent plan to launch such an offering in the next two years, according to Watson Wyatt Worldwide.

"Employers are in a competitive market and are looking to attract and retain good people with these programs," says Christine Owen, a consultant in the London office of Mercer Human Resource Consulting. Rising health care costs are another driver behind the trend, Owen says.

Because of an over-reliance on the public health care system in many European countries, some governments are cutting back on their coverage. People often wait hours before seeing a doctor through the government-run program. As a result, sick leave and health care expenses consume 16 percent to 20 percent of payroll for large companies, Owen estimates.

The changes involved in creating a wellness program in Europe are significant, she says. Since it's a new market, there are few wellness program providers and little data to show the effectiveness of such initiatives, she says.

Cultural differences also need to be addressed, says Naomi Saragoussi, a senior consultant in health care and risk consulting at Watson Wyatt. "You have to take into consideration the different cultures in different countries, but also there are different behaviors in different regions of countries," she says.

American Standard recognizes that regional leaders need to be invested in the success of wellness programs, Lattig says. The company took such an approach in the United States by making site managers accountable for their region's results. Similarly, American Standard set up a global team in Mexico when it launched its wellness program there in October 2004, she says. The same approach applies to Europe.

"I know that I cannot build a program for France without understanding their culture," Lattig says. "We will work with them to make sure we are aligned on the philosophy, but they will run the program."

--Jessica Marquez

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