Faced with rising health care costs and a growing concern over the health of their employees, a vast majority of multinational organizations plan to place a higher priority on workforce health initiatives and the overall well-being of their workers over the next few years, according to a new survey by Towers Watson (NYSE; NASDAQ: TW), a global professional services company. The survey also found that wellness programs have become prevalent worldwide as more multinationals promote health and well-being.

The Towers Watson survey found that three out of four companies said workforce health and promoting health and well-being will be more of a priority this year and next, while 87% said it will be a higher priority over the next two to four years. To address this growing priority, nearly half of the respondents (47%) plan to implement a global workforce health strategy over the next two years. Currently, less than one-third (32%) of multinationals have a global workforce health strategy in place.

“Given the variety of health systems and market practices around the world, and the significant differences in costs for employers to sponsor health plans, the need for a global workforce health strategy has never been greater,” said Francis Coleman, a senior international consultant with Towers Watson. “Multinationals with a clear strategy can better coordinate local health activities to improve their overall workforce health and increase the efficiency of their total spending on health care.”

When asked to rank the three most important objectives for their health strategy, more than half (54%) of all respondents said it was to demonstrate their continued interest in employee well-being, resiliency and stress management, while slightly fewer (52%) said it was to help control rising health costs. There were, however, significant differences by regions. More than two-thirds (69%) of multinationals headquartered in the Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) region ranked employee well-being and stress management in the top three. By contrast, 62% of Asia-headquartered respondents ranked providing competitive rewards among the top three objectives. Not surprisingly, 59% of North American companies — primarily U.S.- based — listed controlling costs in the top three.

“Multinationals in various regions have different needs and goals,” said Coleman. “Corporations in the Americas, for example, are much more focused on medical cost containment, while European corporations are concerned with disability, lost productivity and absenteeism. EMEA employers are focusing on using their strategy to directly influence employees’ health. Asia-based corporations view their health programs as a way to attract and retain top talent.”

Wellness programs gaining popularity

Overall, three in four (75%) multinationals currently offer a wellness program, which can include preventive care, health screenings or education. And these programs have been growing in popularity over the past few years. The one exception can be found among Asia-headquartered multinationals where only 62% of employers offer a wellness program. The survey noted that this may be due to the emerging nature of preventive care in the region.

“Wellness programs, not surprisingly, can be found mostly in advanced economies. In many emerging economies, these programs are offered only to senior managers,” said Nicole Serfontein, a senior international consultant at Towers Watson. “To get full value from health and wellness programs, multinational employers should clearly define the role wellness and health and productivity programs will play in their global health strategy, and in their overall business strategy. If an organization is in an industry that competes for talent, for example, its approach to health — especially in some regions — could be a factor in attracting and retaining employees.”

Other findings from the Towers Watson survey

  • Companies that have a health strategy are not sharing it broadly with employees. Only 13% of respondents say they’ve explained their strategy to their entire global workforce.

  • In the next three years, multinationals will rely increasingly on more global governance of their health care benefit programs. Data management, third-party vendor support and offering of prevention and wellness programs are the areas most likely to come under some type of global governance at respondent organizations.

About the Survey

The Towers Watson Workforce Health Strategies: A Multinational Perspective surveywas conducted in early 2011 and includes responses from 149 multinational corporations representing a total workforce of 5.2 million people.

About Towers Watson

Towers Watson (NYSE, NASDAQ: TW) is a leading global professional services company that helps organizations improve performance through effective people, risk and financial management. The company offers solutions in the areas of employee benefits, talent management, rewards, and risk and capital management. Towers Watson has 14,000 associates around the world and is located on the web atwww.towerswatson.com.