Benefits Column

Harmonizing Global Operations

Global employee-assistance programs offer HR leaders a way to respond to everyday concerns of expats and third-party nationals as well as crisis situations occurring abroad, such as the devastating earthquake in Haiti. Understanding the local culture, however, is crucial to successful implementation.

Monday, January 18, 2010
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I have always believed that "it's a small world." My parents instilled this idea with a trip through Walt Disney's ride of the same name and then later closed the deal with outings for lunch in the international terminal at JFK Airport. I still remember hearing the flurry of languages. I signed up for my frequent flyer credentials on the spot.

My global connection continues today through travel as well as via social-networking sites such as Twitter. I found out about the earthquake in Haiti before it hit the newswire via tweets from friends. Twitter also gave information immediately about how to make donations, but my concern for Haiti largely revolved around the people.

As HR executives, what would you have been doing on Jan. 12 if you worked for the United Nations and had at least 150 staff workers missing in Haiti? Or perhaps you had one or two employees on assignment on the island.

Critical incidents -- such as this earthquake or the 24 suicides and 13 attempted suicides in 18 months at France Télécom -- are often what make corporations rethink their approach to the human side of work.

Part of that thought process should focus on global employee-assistance programs. They are a key strategy for multinational organizations.

Employee-assistance programs were initially an Anglo-Saxon concept. Born in the English-speaking world, they entered the workplace as occupational alcohol programs and evolved over time to what are now work/life programs that include psychological support, and legal and financial counseling, among other services.

Global EAPs first gained prominence as a tactic to care for expatriates from the United States and the United Kingdom. Support of local nationals and third-country nationals is becoming important as more companies gain presence in an expanding number of countries through mergers, acquisitions and outsourcing.

A global employee-assistance approach may be the only benefit corporations can offer employees in relatively the same way throughout the world. Nick Malhomme, the European development manager of PPC Worldwide, says "employers can harmonize benefits through the implementation of EAPs in all countries with a tie to the corporate culture."

Beyond harmony of benefits, why are EAPs important to offer outside the United States? The European Agency for Health and Safety at Work 2007-2012 identified psychological strain as a specific illness on the rise.

"At the present time, problems associated with poor mental health constitute the fourth most frequent cause of incapacity at work. The [World Health Organization] estimates that depression will be the main cause of incapacity by 2020," it states. "The workplace can be an appropriate place in which to prevent psychological problems and promote better mental health."

The most successful global EAPs contain two key components: a home-office champion and local support. Experts say, "think globally, act locally -- but in a culturally appropriate way."

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According to PPC Worldwide, these are best practices for global EAPs:

* Understand local and regional issues.

* Consider the local health infrastructure and behavioral health climate.

* Grasp cultural stigma and fears.

* Identify influencers -- union leaders, labor councils, managing directors and stakeholders

Local counselors who speak the same language and are part of the fabric of the country are critical for success. You may also have to focus on different issues than you would in the United States to gain employee interest and trust.

South African EAP efforts, for example, may prioritize HIV/AIDS screening services. In China, you may place more emphasis on online and telephonic counseling to minimize employee "loss of face" concerns.

In Latin America, you may increase EAP utilization by responding quickly to critical incidents. (Eduardo Lambardi, managing director of EAP LatinA, indicates that the hot issue in Latin America and the Caribbean is security. Employees there regularly deal with kidnapping and armed robbery.)

If you need to react to a crisis such as the earthquake in Haiti, a global employee-assistance program offers HR leaders a strategy to address both your employees' basic survival needs and their psychological traumas.

And on ordinary days, you will be able to respond to your employees' needs inside and outside the workplace worldwide -- whether they are U.S.-based employees, expatriates, local nationals or third country nationals.

And, if asked about your support of your employees' lives on a global basis, you will be able to say that, when you think globally, it's a small world after all.

Carol Harnett is a highly respected consultant, speaker, writer and trendspotter in the fields of employee benefits, health and productivity management, health and performance innovation, and value-based health. Follow her on Twitter via @carolharnett.

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