COVID-19 challenges faced by overseas employees

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​Managing an international workforce during COVID-19 has added an extra layer of challenges due to the ever-shifting rules and regulations to contain the spread of the virus. It’s important that employers keep up with these changes, are aware of the impact on their employees, and take appropriate measures to support their workforce.

Variations in lockdown

Different countries have had very different approaches to slowing the spread of the virus. From herd immunity in Sweden, allowing citizens to continue as normal by trusting them to socially distance, to strict lockdowns in Dubai - where permission had to be granted by the police for individuals to leave the house even in an emergency.

India has seen one of the largest lockdown regulations where 1.3 billion people were ordered to stay home for 21 days. And South Africa was widely regarded as having one of the strictest lockdowns, banning alcohol (in a bid to reduce related trauma such as drink driving and violence) and cigarettes (due to the direct link between severe COVID-19 cases and smoking).


Travel restrictions

There are also variations country to country and day by day as to the rules and regulations around international travel. Some countries imposed an entry ban from areas experiencing high rates of the virus, and others required citizens to quarantine on return. This is a fluid situation which is changing daily.

It has caused turmoil for some international employees, as it has meant they weren’t able to return home – sometimes for important life events such as weddings and funerals or looking after elderly relatives and dependants. As a result, some international employees have experienced a heightened state of isolation, by not being able to leave the country they work in. Even the disappointment of cancelled holidays shouldn’t be overlooked, as it can have a negative impact on mental wellbeing.


Impact on physical health

The pressures of the pandemic have given rise to bad habits forming or increasing. In the UK, research found that nearly a third of people said they’ve been drinking more alcohol and around a half said they’d put on weight.

Outdoor exercise has at times been restricted and banned in some countries, meaning that physical health will have deteriorated for some employees. Many large-scale fitness events have been cancelled, such as city marathons, and training came to a grinding halt.

Research from Italy found that muscle wastage can occur in just 48 hours of inactivity, but this doesn’t just take its toll on physical health, it is a mental health concern too. Due to lack of exercise fewer endorphins are being releases, and anxiety and low mood can increase as a result of the dramatic change in usual routines.


Supporting staff

The variations in lockdown and restrictions globally as a result of COVID-19 can have a negative impact on all areas of employees’ health and wellbeing if not proactively managed. It’s vital that companies keep abreast of developments in each country that staff operate in, and it can be particularly helpful to speak with international experts who can guide businesses through the most appropriate ways they can support their staff.

Whether providing access to mental health support, allowing staff to discuss concerns they have without fear of judgment or reprimand; or providing virtual solutions to support physical health – such as virtual access to doctors, physiotherapists or even exercise classes – all can help to maintain physical and mental wellbeing.

It’s always been important to understand the different challenges that employees face in different countries and regions as they adapt to new cultures, laws and working environments. This pandemic adds another layer of complexity that brings into sharp focus just how important it is that support is targeted to the different circumstances employees find themselves in around the world.


Sarah Dennis is head of international at Towergate Health & Protection


More coronavirus support resources for HR:

The five things HR leaders should consider in return to work planning

COVID-19, HR and the workplace: three lasting changes

The key lessons HR leaders should learn from COVID-19

Handling conflict mediations triggered by COVID-19

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