The objectives of the Workplace Wellness & Prevention Council of Mexico could lead to a win-win situation that may serve as a model for other developing countries around the world.
In 2003, Abner Mason started a non-profit in Mexico. The AIDS Responsibility Project’s primary function was to campaign against discrimination of people with AIDS and HIV in the workplace. Through his work with the Project, Mason—now the director general of the Workplace Wellness and Prevention Council of Mexico (WWPC) and CEO of Corporate Responsibility Partners (CRP)—began to hear about other health-related concerns that weighed on the minds of managers and HR directors in Mexico. The main issue keeping employees from operating at their best (and pushing healthcare and insurance costs through the roof), the companies said, was chronic disease.
Diabetes, high cholesterol, obesity, and cigarette smoking are among the most common chronic health problems in Mexico. In fact, Mason says, Mexico is often cited as the first or second most obese country in the world, with diabetes the leading cause of death in the country. “I was there to talk about one thing,” recalls Mason, “and the companies kept saying, ‘We really want help with programs that would address chronic disease.’ After hearing that for a number of years, I decided it made sense to try to address that need.” Thus, the CRP—and more recently the WWPC—was born.
WWPC currently has 18 members and counting, including giants such as Costo, Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, Herbalife, Bank of America Merrill Lynch, MetLife, Colgate-Palmolive, General Motors, American Express, Avon, and Procter & Gamble. Employers pay a fee to become a WWPC member, and in return get hands-on assistance with improving the overall health and wellness of their employees, in the form of six key elements: data, education, implementation and evaluation of programs, best practices, public recognition, and policy advocacy. Everything that WWPC delivers, says Mason, came directly from face-to-face talks with employers and from the answer to one question: “What do you need from us in order to effectively improve the health of your employees?” The answer lead to six essential elements:
1) Data. While it may seem simple to many employers in the US, most large companies in Mexico don’t have data on their own employees. So while an employer may know that there are a lot of smokers, for example—“you can see a huge crowd of people outside smoking; every fifteen minutes, all day, there’s a different group out for another cigarette break,” says Mason—not knowing exact numbers makes it more difficult to target wellness programs most effectively or to justify potential wellness programs financially.
2) Education. WWPC sends “wellness coaches” to its member companies, to directly educate the employees about their risk factors for certain chronic diseases or high-risk behaviors. “The [member] companies don’t have the expertise to do that—they’re not healthcare companies,” says Mason. “So we come in as a trusted source not just to educate them, but to inspire them to make the changes in their lives that will lead to better health. Companies said they needed targeted education programs designed to create behavior change.”
3) Program implementation and evaluation. After a WWPC wellness coach speaks to a group of employees at a specific company about a targeted issue—weight loss, for example—the employer may decide they want to cover the costs of a bigger, more extensive program to help their employees reach their better-health goals. Examples of such programs might include a nutritionist or dietitian, or a program such as Weight Watchers. WWPC will act as the middle man between its member companies and such programs, searching the market to find the best match for the employer. “As a Council, we don’t provide those services ourselves,” explains Mason. “We find the best programs for our members and introduce them, and then it’s up to the members whether they want to implement it.”
4) Best practices. “Companies really want to know what’s working and what isn’t,” says Mason. WWPC stays on top of the buzz and acts as a forum to make member companies aware of wellness initiatives that have—or have not—worked for each other. “Many of them have said to me, ‘If General Motors has tried something that didn’t work, why should General Motors repeat that?’”
5) Public recognition. One way to motivate companies to stick with their wellness initiatives is with praise and recognition. It’s this theory that led WWPC to create different levels of recognition in the form of a ranking system: silver, gold, and platinum. “Companies are very interested in communicating—to current and prospective employees, customers, clients, and the government—that they are a company that cares and is taking action to improve employee health,” explains Mason.
6) Policy advocacy. “We have very generous tax credits for companies that invest in wellness programs in the US, but there are no such credits for companies in Mexico,” says Mason. Clearly, such incentive would encourage more companies in Mexico to make wellness and prevention a priority and help to make the private sector more of a partner in terms of the country’s health concerns—taking much of the cost burden off of the government and public funds. “But if one company goes to the government of Mexico—no matter how big that company is—and tries to work with the government to create tax credit, it will not have the impact of, say, 50 companies working together within a council, developing a strategy to enact change.” It’s in this vein that WWPC has partnered with the American Chamber of Commerce in Mexico to develop a position paper supporting such a tax credit. WWPC is also working with AMEDIRH, the largest human resource organization in Mexico, to support the tax credit.
A Win-Win-Win Arrangement
Healthier employees can save money via lower health insurance rates, less emergency care, and fewer doctor visit fees if they focus on wellness and prevention. In addition, companies can save money in terms of potentially less absenteeism and greater productivity among the staff. But there are other, more subtle victories to consider as well. “There should be cost savings across the board if people are healthier,” says Mason.
In an effort to get all the players on board, WWPC has developed a committee to work with insurance companies, because healthier employees should, in the long term, translate to lower costs for the payers as well. “They need to be part of this effort to create an environment where all the incentives are aligned, where everyone is working towards better health,” says Mason. A big step toward this goal of payer involvement occurred when MetLife—the largest health insurance provider of company plans in Mexico—recently joined the Council.
Employees themselves also stand to win, for a number of reasons. Many company insurance plans cover “major medical” says Mason, but don’t cover common issues such as flu and other sicknesses and doctor visits—those expenses are, more often than not, paid out of pocket. In addition to the financial benefit for individuals, “we all want for ourselves and our families long, healthy lives,” says Mason. And if the WWPC can show measurable results in Mexico, Mason intends to extend that collaborative outlook into other countries within the next five years, including Brazil, China, and India.
Big Pharma’s Role
The Council will be making its public debut in Mexico City with a media event on May 26 of this year, and hopes to have 100 company members by this official launch date.
In the meantime, there is something that pharma companies can contribute to help the Council reach its wellness goals—and many already are. Mason says some pharma organizations have already reached out to WWPC and offered to help sponsor some of the Council’s initiatives, including offering funds to help with the cost of sending wellness coaches out to educate employees at member companies. Mason hopes that such offers from Big Pharma will grow exponentially as the Council grows.
“Pharma has as much—if not more—expertise than anyone else when it comes to addressing the chronic disease challenges,” says Mason. “It’s great for them to find a way to take advantage of that expertise.”
Mason also believes that those in the pharma industry could help provide training to the Council’s wellness coaches, and help them determine how to best educate employees. “We want to make sure that we’re always seeking out new solutions, and frankly, the pharmas have developed some of the best new drugs and other technologies to help people address these challenges,” he says.