For many employees the chance to work overseas is the opportunity of a lifetime. Exploring new cultures, different ways of life and developing new skills is something that can really enhance career and personal growth. While there are undoubtedly many advantages to relocating to a different country, there are also some potential downsides which responsible employers need to be aware of and take measures to guard against.
While being thousands of miles from home can be exciting and exhilarating, it can also be lonely. Without the support network of friends and extended family, at times employees can feel isolated and vulnerable, particularly if they have travelled alone and left loved ones behind. Settling into a new way of life doesn’t happen overnight. There are local customs and sometimes languages to learn, which can be a challenge. New relationships take time to build. It can be an extremely stressful time, which can affect mental health.
If employees have a family who relocates with them, they can have the additional worry of making sure they get settled too. Finding a new home and new schools adds extra pressure to what can be an already stressful situation. It’s important for employers to take all this into consideration and be aware they have a duty to look after their employees both during office hours and when they’re outside work too.
Despite the focus over the last few years on the importance of looking after mental as well as physical health, we were surprised to find in our recent study with HR decision makers that the majority of organisations who send employees overseas don’t provide dedicated mental health support. Only 43% of companies with over 250 employees and 28% of SMEs currently offer this vital support to their staff. This seems to be a major oversight and could mean that employees are left unsupported if they are dealing with a mental health problem, far from the stability of their usual surrounds. It could result in these issues being ignored, allowing them to grow into much more serious conditions.
When looking at relocation provisions for employees, organisations need to look at a specific policy that is tailored to the needs of the country and to the employee. Circumstances such as age, family commitments and the length of the assignment should all be taken into consideration. Healthcare provision will vary from country to country and mental health support in particular may be much harder to access than help for physical conditions. If employees know there is help at hand before, during and after their posting they are more likely to seek advice when they need it.
One element of healthcare provision that companies should consider for all overseas staff is a global assistance programme. These can help with a variety of eventualities, including providing support for mental health concerns. Support can be provided by experienced experts who have worked abroad themselves and understand the pressures and problems which may arise from working far from home. Help can be made available 24 hours a day, seven days a week so the employee never needs to feel there is nowhere to turn, but that there is always some who they confide in confidentially.
Employees want to work for companies that not only provide them with career opportunities but take their wellbeing seriously. The absence of a complete package that looks after all their healthcare needs may deter employees from working for some companies. Early intervention with mental health problems is vital and can lead to a quicker recovery, so it’s in everyone’s interests to provide dedicated support and make sure staff know how to access it whenever they need help.
Sarah Dennis is Head of International at The Health Insurance Group, which she joined in 2014 following over 17 years working as a consultant and in senior management roles in international health insurance companies including Jelf Group, Norwich Union Healthcare (Aviva UK), HealthCare International, Goodhealth Worldwide Ltd. (Aetna Global Benefits) and RSA.
Winner of the International Intermediary of the Year 2008, 2010, 2011 and 2015 and Highly Commended in 2009, 2012 and 2016, in the Health Insurance & Protection Awards - Sarah is a speaker, committee member and contributor to both global industry conferences and international publications.
Sarah is responsible for corporate international private medical insurance and expatriate cover, and the development of exclusive products for SMEs and expatriate groups.