Employee mental health: an international problem with a local solution

Employees in some countries may be less likely to discuss mental health and less likely to seek help

Supporting mental health is generally understood in the UK to be a key element in employee health and wellbeing. However, attitudes towards mental health differ around the world.

Whether a company has one employee overseas or the majority of the workforce in different countries, it is important that the HR function understands the contrasting attitudes among different cultures and adapts their approach to the wellbeing support offered.

Indeed, the views on mental health are so diverse that in some countries the term itself is not even recognised.

In these cases, it is often more helpful for HR to talk about wellbeing, otherwise any efforts to increase awareness, engagement, and utilisation of support are likely to go unheeded.

UK employees afraid to admit mental health problems at work

Understanding the levels of mental health issues in other countries is not easy as the lack of acknowledgement in some cultures can lead to a lack of reporting.

There may be low rates of recognition among those suffering from mental health issues and among the medical profession, meaning that some countries fail to publish mental health statistics at all.

According to the World Health Organisation, the global recognition rate for mental health issues is about 50%.

But this figure is much lower in some areas than others, with Shanghai in China, for example, having recognition rates for depression of just 21%, which in practice may not reflect the actual situation.

This difference in approach can be reflected in the amount of investment governments make in supporting mental health.

While expenditure is relatively high in Europe at US$46.7 (around £37) per person, this figure is as low as US$0.1 per person in south east Asia and Africa.

It is therefore not surprising that employees in some countries will be less likely to openly discuss mental health and may also therefore be less likely to seek help.

One survey specifically asked how local people would feel speaking about anxiety and depression with someone they knew.

In Hong Kong, the majority of respondents (53.1%) said they would ‘not be comfortable at all'.

In China this figure was a third of respondents (33%) and in the UK, it was just over a quarter, at 27.6%.

The figure was lowest in Morocco, where just 5.8% of respondents said they would not be comfortable at all in talking about anxiety and depression to someone they knew.

How HR can take a preventative approach to mental health and wellbeing

With cultures around the world showing such different approaches to mental health, employers and their HR professionals would be wise to take expert advice on how best to support their workforces.

The issues can run deeply to a point where an employer could be forgiven for thinking that a particular area had no problems with mental health.

Taking advice from someone on the ground in the region will give a clearer view of the true situation.

Support needs to be made appropriate to each employee in the specific area of the world in which they are working, and it should include support from people who have direct experience of the issues of working abroad.

Communication of wellbeing advice and support is always key. Regular communication will help to ensure that the details are to mind at the time when they become needed and materials must be prepared in such a way so as to be sensitive to the culture of the region.

Confidentiality is also vital, and it’s particularly important that this is emphasised in the cultures less open to talking about mental health.   

Understanding the spectrum of mental health support needs at work

Overall, global mental health and wellbeing support cannot have a broad-brush approach.

The support and the communication surrounding it needs to be tailored to different personality types, different needs, and different cultures and attitudes around the world.

While this may sound like a lot of work, it becomes manageable with the advice of in-country experts who can provide the appropriate support for the HR manager, as well as the employees they are looking after.

Sarah Dennis is head of international at Towergate Health and Protection