The first few weeks following a posting abroad may be recognised as a highly stressful time, but it’s important that employers understand employees face challenges at all stages of an overseas assignment. Before a posting, on initial arrival, after a few months (or even years), and on return to the UK are all testing times. These phases each have specific challenges and important risk factors that can take their toll on an employee’s mental health.
Before staff relocate to a new territory businesses need to educate them about the region and not assume they will have prior knowledge about local conditions or cultural norms. This shift for a worker, compounded by workload stress and the shock of transitioning into a new culture, may cause some employees to feel anxious or overwhelmed. As well as preparing itineraries and training, it’s also a good idea for employers to put in a stress management policy and system of support for workers in a new country.
When an individual is stationed abroad it is important they are offered continued support.
An employee with high job demands, long working hours in a new location, long absences from home and separated from friends and family is at risk of stress. Communication once an employee has settled in can help to support their wellbeing. Everyone is susceptible to feeling stressed, frightened or low, and an individual can be thriving at work but still suffer from mental health problems. So it’s important that consideration is given to regular monitoring before issues escalate or a crisis occurs.
Those abroad for longer periods, possibly working on back-to-back assignments in different countries, can face different challenges to those away for shorter periods. Missing important family events back home can cause feelings of isolation, and working in multiple cultures can make people feel they don’t belong anywhere. It’s important that such challenges are recognised and support is offered to these individuals, even if they’re seasoned travellers.
When an employee returns home after secondment abroad it is a critical time to provide support. It can be a shock re-adjusting to a different pace of work, work/life balance or culture, even if it’s familiar. Employers should identify individuals that could be at risk as they adjust back home. Encourage staff to talk openly about their mental health – this can also have the added benefit of improving working conditions for the wider team.
Embedding mental health provision
Businesses must identify good practice around workplace policies on mental health for employees seconded abroad, and take steps to make sure these policies are actively promoted. A global employee assistance programme can be a great way for employers to do this. These can provide access to specialists who have worked abroad so understand the problems first-hand and can provide social, emotional and psychosocial support to those overseas. This help can also extend to their families.
Mental health around the globe
Attitudes towards mental health vary throughout the world. The Middle East tends to be less open, whereas northern Europe can be more supportive.
In Japan an estimated 5% of all suicides are company related – it is the leading cause of death in men aged 20 to 44 and women aged 15 to 34. Work-related suicide (karojisatsu) is treated as an urgent public health issue officially recognised under 2014 law, and the government is obliged to take responsibility for creating safer work environments.
In China suicide is the fifth leading cause of death and accounts for more than a quarter of suicides.
Even where workplaces aim to be emotionally healthy, the stigma surrounding mental health can still persist. Being aware of the potential challenging times for staff positioned internationally is the first step, and it’s crucial that support is offered before and throughout the duration of an assignment, as well as when it comes to an end.
There can be a degree of pressure on individuals stationed abroad to be seen to be coping, so employers need to make sure support is accessible to staff.
Sarah Dennis is head of international at Towergate Health & Protection