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09 May 2024
by Mark Harris

Employers need to address gap in international employee wellbeing 

Nearly one-fifth of employers say they do not have a benefits strategy to support international employees

Employers need to address gap in international employee wellbeing .jpg 1


Global assignments have bounced back post-pandemic, with the latest Mercer Marsh Benefits (MMB) research showing that 93% of employers expect their number of international remote workers to stay the same or even increase.

Despite this, nearly one-fifth of employers say they do not have a benefits strategy to support international employees, reflecting a concerning gap in healthcare for a growing segment of modern, globally mobile workforce.

At a recent roundtable, MMB brought together C-level executives from global insurers (including Allianz, AXA, Bupa, Cigna, GBG, IMG, Passportcard and UnitedHealthcare Global) to discuss the changing shape of international workforces and new challenges surrounding medical benefit provision across borders.

Rising medical costs conflict with talent strategies

Opening the discussion, Dave Hilton, MMB’s Global Mobility Solutions Leader for the UK, said employers faced increasing plan costs as they seek to attract and retain key internationally mobile talent.

“Globally, a medical trend rate of 11.7% is anticipated for 2024, due to factors including inflation, increased utilisation, rising mental wellbeing challenges and later-stage diagnosis of illness post-pandemic.”

Attracting and retaining employees with the required skillsets for global assignments has become increasingly difficult against this backdrop of escalating costs.

The research shows that 96% of employers are not considering cutting medical benefit levels – but are instead looking to resolve cost challenges through improving employee engagement and evolving their wider mobility strategies to align with benefits.

Employees at the same time are demanding increasing levels of benefit and services to support their individual mental and physical health.

Ensuring benefit arrangements remain relevant and designed to attract a diverse pool of talent has therefore become critical to achieving a thriving mobility programme.  

Accelerating trend of international remote working

Post-Covid-19, the workplace is vastly changed, with a cohort of newly globally mobile employees with changing needs, attitudes and expectations.

Bruce Daisley, workplace culture thought leader, talked about future trends in employee remote working and said 90% of employees do not want to go back to the “old way of working” from an office location. There was an increasing trend of employees opting to work from outside of their country of residence.

The picture varies by geography. Janette Hiscock of UnitedHealthcare Global said that “in the US, many employees took the opportunity to either move home or relocate further away from the office, which has impinged on the ability of workers to return, even on a hybrid basis”.

Meanwhile in the Middle East, Patrick Lawlor from Allianz said, “the office is back to 5 days a week.”

Hilton said there was no one answer when it came to remote working and that employers needed to consider the differing needs of all parts of the workforce.

AXA’s Global Head of Distribution Andy O’Cain said its survey showed the younger generation wanted to go back to the office for the social interation.

“The emphasis is on employers therefore to make the office experience meaningful,” he said.

Many employees are increasingly opting for hybrid-working models that allow them to return to living in their home country and commuting abroad as necessary.

This new type of international hybrid working raises questions around the type of benefits offered to employees, given that business travel insurance traditionally only covers a maximum of 30 days per trip, or 180 days per year, and full medical cover is traditionally an annual cover policy.

The attendees said that the market will adapt to this client need in 2024.

Mental wellbeing

A key driver of recent rising claims costs, particularly since the pandemic, is mental wellbeing.

“Mental health remains a key risk factor for medical claims,” said Wolfgang Seidl, MMB’s Workplace Health Consulting Leader for UK and Europe.

The impact of remote vs in-office working on mental health has been a major topic in recent years.

It was pointed out that leaders can often forget about the 50% of employees who cannot work from home due to the nature of their occupation. These employees can feel isolated and vulnerable.

”As a physician, I believe illness affects everyone at some stage. What matters is being able to identify the issue and support a positive outcome,” Wolfgang said.

In many cases, insurers are already providing tools to help clients address these challenges.

The roundtable discussed the role of EAPs which generally are underused by employers, despite offering services which have evolved to meet the increasing needs of employees, such as mental health counselling, counselling for children (key for home work/balance), AI-driven triage and financial support services.

Financial wellbeing was identified as a key driver of mental wellbeing, and often EAPs offer professionals in this area to support members.

John Kaye from UnitedHealthcare Global said the passive nature of many clients needs to change.

“Communication and review of data is key to drive utilisation, engagement and positive outcomes”.

Kevin Melton at IMG agreed that “EAPs can sometimes be a tick box in any RFP but this results in low utilisation. What is needed is active management.’

David Myers from Allianz said “regular EAP promotion is needed. Allianz see a 3% increase in utilization on average following promotion and then it falls back down if activity is not repeated”.

There are an increasing number of mental wellbeing support apps in the market, but as these are evolving from ‘tech’ rather than ‘medical’ companies there are concerns about data privacy, with Gen Z in particular taking an increasing interest in control of their own data.

This will result in the need to consider data privacy issues versus the clinical nature of the app usage.

Wolfgang outlined the clear benefits for employers who have a robust mental health policy in place:

  • 13% reduction in total cost of mental health claims
  • 60% improvement in patient outcomes
  • 41% reduction in absence
  • 9% reduction in number of claims
  • 16% reduction in average cost of claims

There is clearly a strong, positive correlation between employee wellbeing, productivity and firm performance.

From passive to active plan management

The participants agreed that employers will be increasingly moving from a passive to a more active plan management.

This will be vitally important in identifying and addressing potential healthcare gaps, and offering sustainable, thriving mobility programmes. Intermediaries and insurers both have a key role to play supporting clients in this transition, they said.

Find out more about MMB’s research on insured benefits for internationally mobile employees.

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