How to support overseas employees through specific challenges

Today (10 September) is World Suicide Prevention Day. Being there for people, listening to them and offering support are all vital aspects in supporting mental health. Colleagues may be some of the first to notice if there is an issue and the support offered within the work environment is often a crucial part of helping someone who is struggling.

It needs to be remembered, however, that employees working overseas have very specific challenges and this needs to be reflected in the approach to support them.

They may be working on their own, or with colleagues who do not know them very well. They may be abroad without their family or any network of friends. The specific challenges overseas personnel face will also differ depending on their host nation.

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Unique challenges

Employees abroad may have feelings of isolation. This can be exacerbated by unfamiliar surroundings and new customs. They may feel they have no one to turn to, particularly if their head office and HR department are back in the UK.

Often those with overseas assignments put undue pressure on themselves. This stems from the idea that working abroad should be a great opportunity and they may think they have let people down or wasted the investment made in them if it does not work out.

Employees often take up the opportunity of working abroad with the expectation of a better lifestyle.

They may, however, be surprised by how much effort goes into making an overseas assignment work. Without friends and family around them in the evenings and weekends, employees may find they end up working longer hours, which can take a toll both physically and mentally.    


Employers in a position to help

Employers are in a position to be able to offer early intervention. They have the opportunity to put in place wellbeing benefits that can help employees to support and improve their mental health.

It can be helpful for employees to talk to someone who also has experienced working abroad.

Only someone who has been in that position themselves can truly understand the specific challenges. It can also be useful to provide information from health and wellbeing experts who have local knowledge. Each country will have different resources, and different ways of accessing them.

In the UK we are lucky to have a culture that is increasingly understanding of mental health issues.

We are becoming more open in talking about problems and many people would know where to go for help if the situation became serious.

But organisations like Mind and the Samaritans either do not exist in some countries, or overseas employees simply would not know how to go about contacting them. Employers must ensure, therefore, that they keep communication channels open. They should foster an environment where colleagues feel comfortable talking about their problems and clearly signpost sources of support.


Specific support

Help, advice and support is out there, it is often just a case of employees being made aware of its existence. Global employee assistance programmes offer staff confidential helplines 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

With counsellors, legal and financial specialists, they can offer email and live chat, structured counselling online, face-to-face sessions or on the phone, and access to wellbeing portals.

Mental health training is becoming more common and can build resilience in the individual or help colleagues to spot warning signs and offer mental health first aid.

The theme for World Suicide Prevention Day this year is ‘creating hope through action’, and we hope that having read this, employers will act now to ensure support is in place.


Sarah Dennis is head of international at Towergate Health & Protection