Well-Being Around The World: How HR Departments Are Jumping Into Action

I just finished six weeks of international travel so I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about sleep, exercise, and diet. (Yes I’m taking good care of myself, but it does really take an effort.)

What I want to talk about is the well-being market, which is something that has come up in every city I visited. I’ll be publishing a more detailed research report on this market later in the year, but right now I want to share some information which you may find useful.

1) Well-Being is a Global Topic, Not Limited to Big Cities or Developed Economies.

First, let me tell you the priority is high everywhere. I asked HR leaders in India, Moscow, Japan, Amsterdam, Paris, and Romania about the topic. Every single group told me it was a very high priority.


First, it’s very clear that workers are digitally overwhelmed. I just did some research with LinkedIn and found that 27% of employees believe they are wasting an entire day each week on distracting, unimportant emails and messages.

Second, people are working more hours. 40% of Americans work more than 50 hours per week and 74% don’t get enough sleep. And I hear this directly from corporations. When I asked the CHRO of one of the world’s largest energy companies why he was so focused on well-being he gave me a simple answer: “our people are exhausted.” They now start all staff meetings at 9 am so people can meditate or go to the gym before work.

The head of HR at ING just told me they recently surveyed the entire Dutch employee base to ask them what benefits they wanted. He was astounded at the response: 48% of all employees responded and the #1 thing people asked for was more free time.  People want us to “clear the clutter” out of the workplace and give them time to think.

Third, workers are now becoming open and vocal about their health issues. In Moscow I talked with the HR leader for one of the countries largest producers of Vodka.  This company has plants all over Siberia in remote locations. She told me the employees want fitness classes, weight lifting gyms, and special medical programs to help with alcoholism. So they’re delivering them.

One of the HR leaders for a manufacturer in Romania told me her workforce is very excited about new programs they offer for mental illness and psychological stress, and she was amazed at how open people are now to talk about these issues.

In Japan, a country well-known for long hours at work, the HR teams told me that younger workers are refusing to work the hours of their parents. They want to start work later, leave work earlier, and have a life. (I hear this in the San Francisco Bay Area a lot too.)

In India HR teams were so excited about wellbeing there are dozens of local startups promoting mindfulness, yoga, meditation, and other forms of therapy at work. The Deloitte offices have meditation areas and despite the fast pace of work at most of the Indian companies I visited, there is a tremendous effort to relax.

2) Corporate Well-Being Programs Are Very Prevalent. Almost Too Much So.

While I was in Moscow I asked around 300 HR leaders to raise their hands if they had a corporate wellbeing program. Every single hand went up. I had the same reaction in Romania and similarly in India. HR departments are jumping into this area and there is an ever-increasing number of solutions entering the market.

The CEO of Sequoia Benefits, one of the largest benefits providers to high tech companies in Silicon Valley, told me his clients are so focused on this topic he thinks companies are starting to act like “parents” to their employees. HR departments are not sure where to stop.

Is employer-provided support of well-being a good thing?  I believe the answer is yes. I discussed this with one of the HR leaders at Unilever and he told me the program is now an essential part of the company’s brand. Employees want to live, eat, and work in a healthy and sustainable way. So providing a healthy work environment is now part of your corporate brand.

The problem, however, is that companies are not sure where to stop. There are so many programs to consider (diet, exercise, sleep, mental focus, psychological support, family coaching, leadership development, financial literacy, and more) how do you decide what to do?

I talked with my partners at Deloitte and we found that the company has more than 95 different wellbeing programs, many of which nobody really knows about. This, of course, is a lot to manage, and it distracts the HR team from focusing on the right areas.

I think its a broader issue of “energy.” What can we do to really make people engaged and ready to perform? It’s a daunting set of options.

3) It’s Time To Shift from Programs to Solutions

The long arc of this market is a shift from a focus on health to a focus on fitness to a focus on employee performance. Ultimately the purpose of a well-being program is to make employees productive and happy – which both are deeply linked. Consider the evolution below.

As I described in the workshop we just completed, productivity and happiness go hand in hand – so if you want to make your employees “well” and “happy” you have to make it easy for them to do quality work. This means using your skills in design thinking to simplify the work environment, make sure people don’t have too many goals, and teach leaders how to be focused, supportive, and act as a good coach.

In the context of the well-being market, the big finding is that companies have to segment their workforce. You really can’t just “spray and pray” all these benefits into your company and expect everyone to benefit. We all need different things. Here’s what I’ve learned.

In one company the well-being program evolved into different benefits for different workforce segments. The salespeople wanted coaching on exercise, how to deal with back pain from lots of time in the car, and tips on driving safely and eating well on the road. Workers in Mexico and other underdeveloped countries wanted stipends for drugs and healthcare, because the healthcare system is less mature. And white collar workers want programs like mindfulness training, yoga, and other typical millennial oriented programs. Workers are demanding more and more customized benefits in their well-being programs, finds a study by Tripsitter. It found that ketamine-assisted therapy for depression was one of the many unique wellness recommendations requested to be covered under customizable employee benefit programs.

How do you decide who needs what? Just ask them. You can do surveys; go meet with different teams; or do a conjoint analysis to really see what different workforce segments value most.

And don’t ignore your “deskless” workers. Emergence, a VC firm here in the Bay Area, just published a report on the deskless worker segment, and you’d be surprised how big it is. According to their research, 80% of the global workforce is deskless (agriculture, manufacturing, retail, healthcare, hospitality, restaurants, education, construction, transportation, logistics), yet only 1% of VC funding goes into this area (I’m not sure I believe that, but you get the point). Think about wellbeing programs for those workers: they are the ones really carrying the weight in most big companies.

My conclusion, after many weeks of travel and studying this topic, is that this has become a global siren call for companies all over the world. Corporate well-being is a bit of a crisis, and we have to take a holistic view.

We can’t just “bandaid” over poor management practices, lack of flexibility, unclear goals and rewards, or inflexible work conditions. Think about wellbeing as a management problem, ranging from a focus on health and wellness to a focus on productivity, purpose, and financial security.

For the HR community, this is a wonderful mission to champion.

I challenge you to put this high on your list right now…. and by the way, don’t forget to bring your workout clothes on the next trip and go to the gym before the staff meeting.