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Supporting the mental health of a global workforce

By Jason McCormick


In the last century, the advancement of transportation and communication technology has connected us and created an international community. For companies, this means that a global workforce is necessary to stay competitive in an international marketplace.

While international assignments can do a great deal to grow a company and its employees, as many as 50 per cent of international assignments fail – often due to mental health issues that come with relocation. By implementing a plan and providing comprehensive support before, during and after employees’ assignments, employers can better support the mental health of their global workforce and improve the success rate of these assignments. What employers need to know before sending an employee abroad are outlined below. 


Challenges of a global workforce

Employees who relocate abroad face unique challenges and obstacles. According to the Worldwide Employee Relocation Council, relocation is the third most stressful life event. Navigating new languages and customs can lead to culture shock, homesickness and social isolation. Coupled with the often lack of a support network from friends and family, these feelings can evolve into stress, depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions. One study, conducted jointly by researchers Chestnut Global Partners and the Truman Group, revealed that rates of mental health problems among expats are significantly higher than their counterparts living at home, including risk of internalizing problems, externalizing problems and substance use disorders. For instance, more than 50 per cent of expats were at high risk of internalizing problems (such as anxiety and depression), 2.5 times more than their home-based counterparts. Evidently, expats face significant stress, which can exacerbate mental health concerns and eventually impair performance.

Without support, mental health conditions may aggravate feelings of being overwhelmed and unwelcome in their new homes and, ultimately, affect a company’s bottom line. Mental health conditions can negatively impact performance, including increased absenteeism and decreased productivity and may lead to employees abandoning their assignments and moving home. Since employees are any company’s most valuable asset, employers must offer resources that allow expats to navigate mental health services. 


Employer responsibility 

To help prevent the onset of anxiety and other mental health conditions and promote productivity, provide a detailed pre-trip plan to employees that includes information on their destination’s culture and health system to help them make informed decisions about their care. If employee expectations are realistic, they are less likely to experience culture shock and dissatisfaction with their
new assignments. 

Before travel, it’s also essential that employers work with an insurer who understands the nuances of the insurance compliance requirements of the intended destination to ensure that expats are covered. Many companies mistakenly assume that an out-of-country benefit of a domestic plan is sufficient to cover their expat employees. However, these policies only cover emergency care and may have a clause excluding pre-existing conditions, hindering employees from seeking mental health treatment and, potentially, exacerbating conditions. 

Similarly, because nearly a third of adults are living with a mental health condition, it is essential that employers offer a health plan inclusive of mental health services. One such option is to provide an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) during assignments, which provides confidential assessments and services to help resolve employees’ personal or work-related problems that may impact job performance, health or mental and emotional well-being. At best, these programs not only tackle mental health concerns when they arise, but encourage broader employee wellness to address issues before they escalate. 


Empowering employees

There are several resources employees can also utilize to prepare for the trip, monitor their mental health and find care. Before travel, expats should check out resources like Aetna’s Care and Response Excellence (CARE) team, which provides a 24/7 year-round service to help expats understand how the health care system works in their new country, where their nearest approved medical centres are and what to do in the case of an emergency.

If further counselling is needed, there are many virtual health services that employees can take advantage of while abroad. For instance, Aetna’s In Touch Care offers one-to-one on-going support to vulnerable members, ensuring that wherever they are in the world, they have quick and easy access to the help they need. The program also offers members personalized care support and tools and programs to engage them early and keep them motivated. Similarly, vHealth, initially launched in India and expanding globally, enables members to connect with doctors remotely, via mobile phone, tablet or laptop, and is designed to reduce the need for physical consultations. These services can be especially helpful in areas where care may not be easily accessible or where mental health may be stigmatized. 


Become a resource 

Employees may feel isolated due to cultural stigma of mental health conditions in their new home, intensifying feelings of loneliness and reducing productivity. For this reason, it is essential for employers to become a resource for employees abroad. When possible, employers should support their workforce and try to alleviate stress and anxiety so that employees can focus their full attention on work. 

By demonstrating commitment to supporting mental health, employers create an environment where employees feel comfortable discussing concerns before they escalate. If employers provide consistent support for expats, they can help their employees acclimate to their new home and improve retention rates during
international assignments.

Jason McCormick is the head of sales and services for Canada at Aetna International.




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