Four steps to providing mental health support for overseas staff

Employers often forget the additional pressures felt by those on international assignments, says Doug Rice

There is a great deal of stigma that exists around mental health in the workplace. But with mental ill-health affecting many individuals – three out of five employees have experienced a mental health issue in the past year where work was a related factor – employers are now actively encouraged to shine a spotlight on the subject and take the necessary steps to support their employees.

Recent statistics suggest there is still a long way to go. In fact, 61 per cent of CEOs and managing directors believe employees’ mental health is being looked after, compared to only 40 per cent of non-managers, according to BITC.

While there has been lots of research and guidance in the UK on how to tackle work-related stress and common mental health problems, there has been less discussion around supporting those employees who are living and working overseas.

Consider the stresses put on your globally mobile workforce: 

  • a permanent or temporary relocation; 
  • regular travel away from their loved ones; and 
  • changes in cultural norms 

All these factors can put a strain on an employee’s mental wellbeing. Two of the precursors to mental health issues are stress and lack of adequate sleep, both of which can be amplified for globally mobile employees. Frequent travel between varying time zones can make a regular sleep patterns difficult to maintain. Plus there is the stress that comes with relocating somewhere without an identifiable support network, and having a new culture to adjust to.

An employer has a responsibility to ensure staff have all the tools needed for them to transition smoothly. Not only is this a prudent measure, it also makes good business sense. The happier your staff are, the more productive they will be – ensuring the success of their overseas assignments. 

However, a company’s standard policies and procedures that support the mental health of the  domestic workforce may not translate to an international, often remote audience.

What can employers do?

Some insurance providers are able to offer a company and its staff some crucial tools and benefits, including employee assistance programmes providing 24/7 telephone support, virtual GPs, apps to help manage mental health and personalised preventative health platforms.  

But a successful mental health strategy is about more than access to tools. It needs to offer a holistic solution which includes mental health, as well as physical wellbeing. Identifying potential problems early and taking prompt action may help prevent the development of poor mental health or its deterioration. A key issue for companies is establishing effective referral lines to tackle mental health issues. While HR teams are often well informed about guidance around mental health, this knowledge isn’t always effectively communicated to line managers.

Here are four steps employers should consider: 

  • Prepare your employees before they embark on their international assignment. The old saying “failure to plan is planning to fail” applies well here. Ensure that employees know about having access to information and resources. 
  • Prevent issues arising – raise awareness of mental health and empower employees to take responsibility for their own wellbeing. This includes handling relatively minor issues early so they don’t spiral out of control.
  • Intervene early – provide training and communication across all levels of management to create effective reporting lines, help identify mental health issues and enable managers to know what steps to take to get individuals the support that they need.
  • Protect your staff – international private medical insurance can provide in-patient and out-patient psychiatric benefits.

Doug Rice is head of international healthcare and employee benefits lead at Jelf