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Expat stress on assignment: How to help employees manage it

In an expat stress study published in the International Journal of Mental Health, researchers concluded that expats “experience extraordinarily high stress as well as social and emotional disruption that result from dislocation and moves. These factors, in turn, would be expected to result in higher rates of impairing emotional disruption and convey higher risk for mental health problems.” 

The root causes

Heightened work demands often lie at the centre of chronic expat stress. Unrealistic expectations on the part of either employers or employees — or both — can set the stage for stress-related issues. Language barriers and difficulty assimilating to a new culture contribute. Spouses in particular often struggle to adapt to their new circumstances and lifestyle and because they frequently don’t receive the support they need from their partners, who are all-consumed by work demands, their frustration cycles back to add to the stress their partner feels.

The loss of support networks back home is another significant stressor. A full 43 percent of expats responding to our 2017 survey on what they miss about home said they “missed their friends and family a lot.” While common sense says this would be expected, what employers may not realise is how strongly those feelings impact expat workers’ stress levels. Clinicians on our Care and Response Excellence (CARE) team have found that in many cases, the absence of friend and family support networks compounds the stress and anxiety that already go hand-in-hand with an international move. [1]

Yet even though research shows this to be a typical occurrence, few expats seem to worry about the risk of developing mental health issues while abroad. In our 2016 survey of 5,000 globally mobile individuals, only 6 percent expressed concerns about stress and mental health — even though a full quarter of them said they were concerned about heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and cancer. This mindset seems to correlate with that of the expat mentality that embraces risk and therefore is less likely to plan for the possibility of stress-related issues. It’s why we created our In Touch Care programme: to identify through predictive analytics which members may be at risk of developing mental health concerns, and then to engage and help them.[2]

The solutions

One of the best ways for employers to reduce the odds of assignment failure due to stress-related concerns is to mitigate them through preparation and support. (Learn more about why assignments fail and how to avoid it.) Here are some tips on how to do that.

Laying the groundwork

Go deeper with employee screening. As an employer, you screen employees you’re considering for international assignments to identify if they would be the right person for the job. It also makes sense to have a frank discussion about possible areas of concern unrelated to the work, including the need to secure employment for an accompanying spouse or find the right school for their children. The Society for Human Resource Management recommends a series of articles when exploring international assignments with employees. Addressing these areas up front can go a long way in reducing stressors during the assignment.

Consider mental health first aid training. Wherever you have employees assigned, it’s smart to consider enrolling some or all of them in a mental health first aid training course such as that provided by Mental Health First Aid International. Since 2000, more than two million people in 20 countries have completed this training, whose effectiveness has been thoroughly documented. These types of courses teach people how to identify emotional distress and offer (or seek for themselves) initial support until professional care is available.[3]

Evaluate holistic benefits. Some international private medical insurers go beyond the basics to offer options that address the expat’s unique safety and wellness needs. At Aetna International, our plans and add-ons help reduce employee stress by providing information, support and peace of mind. No matter where members go, our employee assistance programme (EAP) is by their side for in-person or telephone counselling and wellness resources (including stress management techniques). Aetna Security Assistance in partnership with crisis response management experts at WorldAware (Please note that this service is now provided by Crisis 24 - 04/2021), provides members access to the security advice and assistance they need to stay safe — such as global security alerts, security briefings and more. And a growing number of our members can have their acute or chronic mental health needs met by remote professionals in their own language thanks to our expanding virtual health services.

Before they leave

Make a plan. Instead of just thinking about the WORK your assignees will be responsible for, take the time to consider the challenges that will confront them within and outside of the workplace. Consult our pre-trip planning and other resources to familiarise yourself with what they should know and do before they leave — everything from housing and banking needs to school and public transportation options. Then follow up to make sure they’re taking care of things and see what you can help them with.

Talk the talk. Arrange for and subsidise their participation in language classes before they leave if the dominant language where they’re going is not the same as their native language.

Walk the walk. Don’t just assume they will have no trouble assimilating. Walk them through expectations by providing plenty of information in advance about cultural, legal and political norms in their new location. Our destination guides can be a good starting point.

Suggest preventive care. Understanding how to manage stress BEFORE they leave gives employees a leg up once they arrive. Encourage them to learn and practise behavioural health techniques at home that can become good habits they continue while they’re away.

Once they’re abroad

Avoid overload. Research shows that workplace stress leads to less productive employees. That’s why it’s in your best interest as an employer to keep tabs on the assigned workload and informally check employee ‘stress temperatures’ on a regular basis. If work demands seem chronically high, find ways to lessen the intensity and encourage breaks when possible.

Connect employees to resources. Find out and share links to the most used and effective social networks for expats in that destination — local blogs, Google communities, and Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn groups, for example. Reach out to people from your own business network who are in that location to ask for connections and resources that will help employees assimilate.

Encourage their involvement. Invest in your employees’ holistic well-being by encouraging them to participate in activities that will keep them physically healthy and engaged with new friends. Paying for them to join a fitness center, take an art class or enjoy a family swim can have a disproportionately high return by helping them become more integrated into their community.

Provide regular reminders. Check in from time to time with your employees to remind them of the EAP and other resources available to them. Make it clear you value physical and mental health benefits equally to reduce any stigma for using them.

Our CARE team is always here to help members assess their risk of mental health concerns and connect them with EAP and other resources for support. Read more in our expat mental health tips or contact us for more ways to support expat wellness.

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1 Aetna International study, 2017
2 Aetna International study, 2016
3, November 2017