How to overcome the biggest challenge of global wellbeing campaigns: cultural differences

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Navigating cultural nuances and differences is the biggest challenge when it comes to rolling out global wellbeing campaigns.

As Sir Ian Cheshire says in this article, while companies may be able to easily roll out strategies from other functions, mental health and wellbeing is not “a standard global conversation”, so it’s much trickier, and the stakes for getting it wrong, are much higher:

“Rather than trying to put in place a global, uniform programme, you have to ask yourself: “At the moment, in this country, what is the solution that will work?” The answer has to come from the people on the ground, who know what’s culturally possible and what isn’t, because the wrong message, delivered the wrong way, is pretty catastrophic.”

4 Top Tips

He has four main pieces of advice for wellbeing professionals rolling out a global programme:

  1. Build a multilevel network in a country
  2. Find local champions
  3. Work with them to identify the most important thing that will move the dial most
  4. Give the brief to local teams to develop, which will mean different executions

Dr Richard Peters, Chief Medical Officer, at Goldman Sachs, touched on the topic, too, in his MAD World panel on measurement, agreeing that it’s important to “have an overall strategy” and then “hone in to the particular country, local nuances and local requirements”.

Some topics are taboo

“In some places, like Asia, certain topics are taboo and you can’t speak about them, like mental health and suicide,” he said. “So it’s about asking: how can we deliver a programme in a different way, so not using those words? But talking about wellbeing and coaching, for example?”

He adds that it works best if a wellbeing strategy is “quite simple”. This was, in fact, the biggest learning that men’s charity Movember Founder JC had when taking this mental health campaign global:

“One of the most powerful lessons I’ve learned from Movember scaling and growing across 21 countries across 27 different languages is that it’s actually not that complex,” he says. “Just strip back to the basics and common sense will prevail. And never underestimate the power of humour.”

Focus on simple, universal truths

Consequently, Movember focused its campaign around a universal, simple truth that is “the same the world over from Australia, Singapore, South Africa, UK, Europe to American”: as JC says, that men “need friendships to stay socially connected and to check in with their mates”.

It also kept its media strategy simple, collaborating with high profile sports which have a mainstream, predominantly male audience. For example, its ‘Breaking the Ice’ ice hockey collaboration in Canada, its ‘Heads Together’ tie up with New Zealand Rugby, its affiliation with annual motorbike event The Gentleman’s Ride which covers 102 countries and its partnership with Formula 1, also giving it access to a global audience of approximately 350 million.

Adapt your approach

Publishing company Pearson, which also takes a global approach to its wellbeing strategy, has found that, because the mental health conversation is at very different stages in different countries, it’s essential to adapt the approach.

“In the US and the UK we can be more explicit about our mental health provision but in other territories we have to be more subtle because the conversation is not as open around mental health and people don’t talk about their challenges,” says Kevin Lyons, Senior HR Manager, at Pearson. “Whether that will change with a new generation coming through, I don’t know.”

One thing that has helped start and open the global conversation around mental health has been the creation of mental health first aiders around the globe. To do this, Pearson worked with MHFA England which has a range of international partners through which it delivers tailored training relevant to the cultural nuances in each country. “This has been absolutely brilliant,” says Lyons.  “There have been very few issues with training up our employees for these roles.”

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Global conversations

Pearson has also dipped its toes in global initiatives that bring together all the different territories and touch on wellbeing. It has created a platform for global conversations called “Around the World” which incorporates topics such as putting the spotlight on its EAP Programme to talking about how the employee engagement survey shows a need for wellbeing support.

By contrast Hays is in 33 countries but doesn’t have an overarching global strategy – it prefers to execute the strategy at regional level. According to Head of Wellbeing Hannah Pearsall, it has taken this decision because of the cultural differences between countries:

“The maturity of where different countries are on the scale of wellbeing discussions is vast. Some of the conversations we’re having in the UK, we’re absolutely not ready to be having in other countries.”

Bringing territories together around key dates

However, Pearsall hosts a global wellbeing forum where wellbeing representatives come together on a regular basis to discuss challenges together. And, last month the company ran its first multi-country initiative around World Mental Health Day. For this, representatives from a number of different countries hosted a call for employees.

“It was brilliant, and great we were able to do that,” says Pearsall. “But there are significant cultural differences which means it is still quite difficult to have a conversation about mental health in some countries compared to the UK. I can only imagine how difficult it must be to roll out a global strategy.”

A great deal of thought went into how to position the message around World Mental Health Day. Rather than talk about mental ill health, Hays decided to open the conversation by talking about the concept of mental health generally and the fact that all of us move up and down the mental health continuum, depending what is going on in our lives.

Picking the right conversation starter

“The onus wasn’t on negative or poor experiences because we felt that that was the right step for us, knowing that we have such a spectrum of people in terms of the maturity of some of the countries and where they are regarding discussion of mental health,” says Pearsall.

Similarly, MAD award winners for best multinational wellbeing programme media company EssenceMediacom have found the framing of the conversation to work on a global basis is really important. 

“Although talking about mental health as a subject might be taboo in some countries, we are all broadly more comfortable talking about physical health, so this can be used as a gateway topic to considering the impact of our physical health on our personal mental wellbeing,” says Emily Howe, Global People Experience Manager at EssenceMediacom.

Think Global, act local

Howe says it’s been “imperative to consider cultural nuances” in the approach to wellbeing and its motto is “Think Global: Act Local”. 

“Practically, that looks like developing initiatives that can be tailored at a market level to accommodate for different demographics, headcounts and stigmas,” she says. She gives the example of the fact that the company has more than 200 Mental Health Allies trained in over 60 cities across the network but in Asia Pacific and some of the European Markets they are given the title “Wellbeing Allies”.

“This is due to the stigma surrounding the words ‘mental health’ and how they translate into different languages,” she says.

Breaking barriers

However, EssenceMediacom is striving to breakdown barriers and make the discussion and the community truly global and one way it’s doing this is via its ‘Global Ally Directory’. This allows colleagues to search for allies specifically in their city, or to search all biographies for specific words like ‘parent’ or ‘grief’ or ‘LGBT’. 

“The allay directory is a great place because it means you don’t have to speak to allies in your market, which is really important, because it helps give that bit of anonymity,” says Howe.

In future, too, the media firm plans to include the ability to filter allies by their spoken languages. As Howe says:

“This way colleagues can find an ally from anywhere in the world who has a specific demographic or lived experience that makes them feel more comfortable reaching out and opening up – geographic barriers cease to exist.”

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