Six ways to look after the health and wellbeing of globally mobile employees

The world may be becoming a smaller place, with increasing globalisation prompting the evolution of an ever more mobile workforce. 

Six ways to look after the health and wellbeing of globally mobile employees

Although an overseas posting can bring opportunities for workers, opening up opportunities to experience new cultures and diversity, it can also be challenging and overwhelming. 

According to the World Health Organisation, expatriates and travellers often report experiencing feelings of isolation and anxiety. Separation from family and friends, a lack of familiar social support systems, and different working practices can often lead to increased levels of stress and, ultimately, to both physical and psychological problems. 

Although employees working on temporary overseas assignments may encounter the greatest risks, companies have historically tended to invest more heavily in the health and wellbeing in permanent places of work.  

But as the number of globally mobile employees increases, and the investment in overseas assignments becomes greater, companies will no longer be able to take an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ approach to the health and wellbeing of workers posted abroad. 

The probability of failed international assignments is high, as are the associated costs, so appropriate healthcare coverage and ongoing support is not a case of ‘nice to have’ but can be business critical.

1. Forearmed is forewarned

In the run-up to an overseas posting, employees often have little opportunity to prepare themselves for the culture shock of a move abroad. 

Pre-emptive health and wellbeing advice should not be limited to the necessary vaccinations. It should include an in-depth introduction to the risks of local diseases, ailments and common health risks, as well as tips on how to avoid these and the sources of support they can access when abroad. 

Managing expectations can also soften the emotional blow. Companies can consider putting workers in touch with colleagues who have worked overseas, ideally in the same location, so that they can give an honest account of their first-hand experience of working and living in said country, both the benefits and challenges.

Arming workers with as much local information as possible, from working culture and leisure opportunities to the sense of community and cultural adjustments, can help workers feel empowered and more aware of what to expect of their new home. 

A pre-assignment psychological assessment can flag up any potential stress points and help companies decipher if the worker is suited to their new location, and a wider health screening can identify any potential medical issues, allowing for early intervention to be set in motion before the assignment begins. 

A health assessment before going overseas can also help reduce the chances of an assignment being cut short due to ill-health and provides reassurance to the assignee.

2. Support after touch-down

Practical support, such as giving employees access to free internet calls, can help to alleviate the profound sense of alienation which can persist in the early days of an assignment abroad. 

As well as giving staff round the clock telephone counselling support, an employee assistance programme can give posted workers quick and easy access to legal, financial and specialist advice services, reducing the emotional impact.

Face-to-face counselling can also enable employees struggling with a difficult transition to regain or maintain control of their lives. Solution-focused brief therapy (SFBT) places focus on a person's present and future circumstances and goals rather than past experiences. SFBT aims to help people experiencing difficulty find tools they can use immediately to manage symptoms and cope with challenges. 

Burnout or isolation from overworking may be a particular issue during an overseas posting, so companies may consider offering lifestyle-orientated benefits, such as health club membership, to encourage an optimum work-life balance. 

Getting ill overseas can be a very frightening experience. Employees need reassurance about standards of local medical care or alternatives, and companies should look to ensure their workers do not have gaps in coverage, clearly outlining the healthcare workers are entitled to. Having access to fully trained and English-speaking doctors online can also be very reassuring.

3. Harness the power of tech

One in two employees now use technology to manage their health, according to Willis Towers Watson’s Global Benefits Attitudes Survey (GBAS).

Companies can help promote a preventative, self-care approach for workers posted abroad, by tapping into technologies already utilised by employees. 

Offering access to technology aimed at improving emotional wellbeing, such as meditative apps, text-based counselling, AI chatbots and yoga tutorials can help with resilience and reduce stress levels from anywhere, at any time.   

Subsidised wearable and monitoring technology that looks at improving lifestyle, such as sleep monitoring apps, fitness trackers and online nutritional diaries, can help promote balance and put workers in good stead for long-term health and wellbeing.

4. Communicate, communicate, communicate

Good communication with the country of origin’s headquarters is the cornerstone of any successful overseas posting. 

From a health and wellbeing point of view, regular contact can help companies identify any issues early on and stave off feelings of isolation in the worker in question. 

Contact should be established before, during and after the assignment, with plenty of opportunities for workers to raise any worries or concerns about their wellbeing.  

During induction to their new role companies can introduce workers to the support the company offers and give them clear guidance on how they can access this support. A helpline card, which they can carry around easily, may be a useful resource. Sources of support should be reiterated during the posting and personal communications sent to check on their progress. Other on-location visuals, such as posters, can also underline the company’s commitment to wellbeing and encourage workers to reach out. 

5. Settling in for the settling down

It is said that it takes six to 12 months to get used to a new country, for daily activities to become routine and to adapt to the customs of the host country. 

This is not only true of the worker, but also of the worker’s spouse and children, should they also be temporarily relocating. 

Employees travelling with spouses and children will understandably be thinking about the wellbeing of the whole family, not just them as an individual. 

The stresses of moving to another country can have a deep impact on the wider family, which can have a knock-on effect on the worker’s mental wellbeing and potentially jeopardise the assignment. 

Companies can look to extend their emotional wellbeing-focused benefits, such as counselling and EAPs, to family members to ensure they have the support they need to adjust to their new environment and situation. 

Offering cash plans can be a good choice, as providers often cover children free-of-charge, providing peace of mind to the employee that cover is available for their dependants at no additional cost.

6. Homeward bound

Readjusting to the home culture after a long spell overseas and picking up a new professional role can sometimes prove to be just as stressful as the initial secondment.

People who have spent years working across varied markets and cultures may feel uprooted and disenfranchised upon their return and struggle to adjust to ‘life before’.

Taking stock of lessons learned and future opportunities within the company, as well as an employee-employer agreed approach to reintegration back into the team, may help employees to reconnect to their old role and give them direction.

A psychological and medical review, and personal debrief for the whole family, can also prove vital during this difficult time.

The author is Mike Blake, wellbeing lead at Willis Towers Watson.

This article is provided by Willis Towers Watson.

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