Employers urged to consider mental health of expatriate workers

World Mental Health Day (10th October) is an annual reminder for employers to focus on the mental health of their workforce.
According to Tristan Cleaver, Managing Consultant International, Punter Southall Health and Protection, they shouldn’t neglect the mental health of their expatriate workforce, who can be more at risk from mental health issues.
Expatriate mental health was the subject of a recent Wellbeing Masterclass hosted this summer by Punter Southall Health and Protection in London, in partnership with Expat Academy.
Stacy Thomson, CEO of The Performance Club, (an award-winning mental health nurse and cognitive behavioural coach), and one of the guest speakers, highlighted that mental health issues amongst the 31.1 million international workers globally are rising and could be contributing to the failure of international assignments. The failure rates for international assignments are estimated between 25-40% in developed countries and 70% in underdeveloped countries.
Stacy pointed out while international assignments can seem like an adventure, with new people, a different city and novel ways of working, most employees are inadequately prepared for expat life and its impact on their wellbeing.
She said expats often struggle to adjust to differences in culture, climate, religion and languages and can feel isolated from their family, friends and colleagues and under pressure to meet high expectations from employers. Also, companies sometimes ‘cut the cord,’ leaving expats feeling alone, which can increase their anxiety and, in some cases, lead to alcohol and drug dependency and sleeplessness.
With the average expat assignment costing $311,000  (£217,000) per year, the cost of failure is high. 40%  of all overseas assignments are judged to be failures and most fail  because employees and their families can’t adjust to the local culture and environment.
Tristan Cleaver believes employers could do far more to prepare expats and their families for overseas assignments. He said, “Too few companies provide pre-assignment screening and cultural training. An initial physical and mental health screening will eliminate unsuitable candidates, saving companies a great deal of money. Cultural awareness will also help to set realistic expectations – expats will then know what to expect in terms of the culture and accepted behaviours, increasing the likelihood of assignment success.
“According to KMPG,  only 38% of companies offer cross-cultural training to the assignees and family and 35% do not offer any cross-cultural training at all and this needs to change. Communications during the assignment is also essential so employees continue to feel in touch with their company and wholly supported.
“There are many affordable expatriate services available today to help companies get it right. These include pre-assignment health screening to ensure someone is fit for the assignment, cultural training for the whole family, comprehensive travel and medical insurance packages and access to EAPS throughout the assignment. While such, services are relatively cost effective for Employers the assurance and value they give employees is priceless in terms of their wellbeing.” 
Tristan’s tips for expat success:
  • Ensure the employee is medically fit – a medical screening programme will help companies predict, prevent and reduce the risk of problematic health risks occurring. They check someone is fit for assignment and provide a clear audit trail of proactively managed duty of care. A medical screening costs just £65 through Punter Southall Health & Protection.
  • Make sure any drugs that the employee/family needs are legal – it’s crucial to ensure an individual’s medication is legal and easily obtained in their destination country. The medical screening will highlight if ongoing medication is needed and if the employee is suitable for the assignment. Ruling out unsuitable candidates at this stage will save a huge amount of money.
  • Give cultural training prior to travel – to support the employee/family and prepare them for the culture and way of life when they relocate. Cultural workshops will ensure families know what to expect, prevent surprises and ease their settling in.
  • Language skills – consider offering intensive language courses for the whole family, if appropriate for the destination. This will not only help in the business environment, but also make accessing schools, hospitals and other services less daunting.
  • Consider an expatriate Employee Assistance Programme (EAPS) – often employees receive very little support once they are abroad. They can feel alone should anything happen such as divorce or if they have health problems. Expatriate EAPs provide a family with 24/7 support, reassurance and peace of mind. Costing just £15 per family per year, they provide online support and there are options for face to face counselling.
  • Provide international medical insurance – gives employees reassurance their medical costs will be met and they will have support sourcing care. In most countries there is no NHS equivalent, so medical insurance is essential. Employers should check their policies include repatriation costs in the event of an employee death whilst abroad.
Punter Southall Health and Protection offers a suite of expatriate benefits solutions. These services include pre-assignment screening delivered by Healix International, cultural training and expatriate employee assistance programme (EAP) from Morneau Shepell, and international medical insurance through Bupa Global. The cost of these services combined represents just 1% of the total cost of an expatriate assignment.