How to protect the health of international employees

The rise of remote working abroad has given businesses a new set of responsibilities, says Mark Harris

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Post-pandemic international working patterns continue evolving. Companies are increasingly competing for talent across borders, and employees who enjoy travelling are asking if they can work abroad as part of a ‘workation’.

International remote working is set to increase as employees choose to undertake more short-term international assignments that might once have been completed by an expat, while expats themselves are opting for hybrid working models that allow them to return to living in their home country and commuting aboard as necessary.

As Paddy Lawlor, head of sales and distribution for Allianz Partners in Europe, observed during a recent roundtable debate on the future of international health benefits: “The old-fashioned model of expats primarily working in Singapore, London and New York doesn’t exist anymore.” Ray Linnartz, European sales director at UnitedHealthcare Global, agreed, saying: “Traditional long-term assignments are going to decrease.”

The new type of international hybrid working emerging instead raises questions around the type of benefits offered to employees, with demand for international medical cover potentially increasing. Teresa Wighton, interim general manager at Bupa Global, says: “Ninety days travel insurance isn’t enough to cover people who now want to commute abroad for multiple shorter periods.”

Employers will also have to consider how to reduce the health risks faced by international workers. MMB’s health trends 2023 research revealed that global insurers are seeing a clear trend of increasing cancer and mental wellbeing claims developing. Cancer is now the top cause of claim spend and more than half (55 per cent) of insurers globally reported seeing more later-stage illness diagnosis in claims because of deferred care. “Individuals mustn’t be afraid to ask their insurer for support,” says Claire Hargreaves, UK & Europe managing director at Global Benefits Group, adding that “prevention and early access to treatment centres of excellence must be a priority”.

Mental wellbeing remains one of the top risk factors for an employee to make a medical claim and has also been on the rise during and post pandemic. Worryingly, the MMB health trends survey shows a third (32 per cent) of employees have fewer than five one-hour psychiatric counselling sessions covered in their domestic and international plan designs – and a further 36 per cent have fewer than 10 sessions.

In the last few years overall plan benefit levels have not been increasing – unsurprisingly against a backdrop of soaring medical costs down to factors including inflation, increased utilisation and later-stage diagnosis of illness. Globally the cost of providing medical treatment – the medical trend rate – is expected to rise by 12.3 per cent in 2023.

To reduce these forecast cost increases, making it easier for international workers to access timely and preventative healthcare support is critical. The insurers are playing their part: half (49 per cent) are considering providing or covering the cost of apps and wearable technology to allow employees to self-manage conditions, while 37 per cent are considering apps that suggest possible diagnosis for simple medical issues.

Increasing access to healthcare, whatever country employees are working in, will also help to protect their health, which is why seven out of 10 insurers (72 per cent) now provide services that allow workers to virtually chat or text with any suitable doctor or nurse. Access to these virtual services will therefore become increasingly important, as employers continue to determine what the ‘new normal’ looks like when it comes to global mobility across their organisation.

The trend for admitted insurance at country level is also accelerating, which means businesses trying to protect the health of workers across numerous countries are increasingly challenged to find one insurance provider to cover everyone.

Offering employees a consistent and harmonious healthcare experience, regardless of which country they are working in, is therefore set to become a lot more complex, but can be navigated successfully with appropriate international benefit management strategies.

Mark Harris is global mobility solutions leader for Europe at Mercer Marsh Benefits