Safeguarding mental wellbeing for globally mobile employees

On World Suicide Prevention Day, 10 September, Towergate Health & Protection highlights how employers can support globally mobile employees and those embarking on overseas assignments.

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September 10 is World Suicide Prevention Day and an opportunity to highlight the importance of mental health in the workplace and the role of supporting those potentially at risk.The first few weeks following a posting abroad may be recognised as a highly stressful time. Understanding that all stages of an overseas assignment can have specific challenges and take their toll on mental health is important. People's jobs can also be a cause of stress, so it’s especially important that at these potentially vulnerable times overseas employees are recognised and supported.

The employer's role 

“Companies can play an important role in suicide prevention,” says Sarah Dennis, Head of International at Towergate Health & Protection. “It’s essential that businesses identify good practice around workplace policies on mental health. “Being aware of the potential challenging times for staff positioned internationally is the first step, and it’s crucial that support is offered throughout the duration of assignments."The provision of a Global EAP [employee assistance programme], which provides access to specialists that have worked in a foreign country and understand the problems first-hand, can be a great support for those overseas.”

Support upon arrival

Businesses also need to prepare and educate an employee located in a new territory about the region they will be working from, and not assume they will have prior knowledge about local conditions or cultural norms.This can ease the transition and help employees be better able to cope with any change in workload and any shock a new culture may cause, which may leave some employees feeling anxious or overwhelmed.As well as preparing itineraries and training, it’s also a good idea for employers to put in place a stress-management policy and system of support for workers in a new country. 

Frequent check-ins

An area that can often be overlooked when employees are stationed abroad is communication once they’ve settled in, and this can help to ensure their continued 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. For this reason, employees positioned overseas experiencing a mental health issue can go unnoticed. It’s important to consider to regular monitoring before a crisis occurs. 

Returning home

It is also critical to support mental health when an employee returns home after secondment abroad. It can be a shock re-adjusting to a different pace of work, work-life balance or culture.Here, employers need to be mindful of indicators that an individual may be having mental health problems, such as changes in usual behaviour.Employers can promote positive wellbeing by creating a supportive environment to help identify individuals that could be at risk as they adjust back home, including talking openly about mental health.

Mental health challenges around the globe

Finding a suitable balance between work and daily living is a challenge that all workers can face. For instance, in Japan, suicide rates border on crisis level and an estimated five per cent of all suicides are company related.Work-related suicide (“karojisatsu”) is treated as an urgent public health issue in Japan and is officially recognised under 2014 law. The government is obliged to take responsibility for creating safer work environments. In contrast, Scandinavian countries, such as Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland display very high levels of happiness, and relatively low suicide rates.According to The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) How’s Life Survey, with flexible hours as the norm and only one per cent of employees working more than 50 hours per week, Sweden boasts a happy and efficient workforce. This flexible approach to working is one reason it has been ranked the best country in the world for work-life balance.

Embedding mental health provision

Employers owe a duty of care to their employees, and this responsibility includes risks to both physical and mental health.Support and psychological health services need to be extended to all workers, whether staff are domestic or sent to work in other jurisdictions.Issues that specifically challenge employees working remotely, such as transitioning into a new culture or long absences from home, mean extra care needs to be taken in supporting an individual who may be facing mental health challenges.It can be really helpful to provide access to support from someone that’s worked abroad:
  • who understands their experience and what they’re going through
  • can offer support for social, emotional and psychosocial elements of such a move
  • can offer support to their family.
A global employee assistance programme (EAP) can provide such help, and can be a great way for employers to support the mental health of their staff abroad.

Read more global health and wellness news and features here.

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