If moving house is one of the most traumatic events in an adult’s life, relocating to a different country must rank as being even more stressful.  Organizations have learned from experience that assignees and their accompanying families require much more assistance than simply moving from city A to city B. Relocation support has evolved over the years, with organizations recognizing that they have a duty of care to provide security, financial, family and healthcare support.

While this may take care of the employee’s physical health – what efforts are made to look after the assignee’s (and their family’s) mental health?

Companies are now exploring their duty of care beyond physical health.  Many are exploring ways to provide support for mental health and wellbeing to expatriates and their families too.

The challenges of duty of care

The study ‘Expatriate Mental Health:  Breaking the Silence and Ending the Stigma’, shows that mental health insurance claims have increased throughout the world. 

Whether this is purely an increase in mental health problems or is a result of increased awareness and access to support is up for discussion.  Mental health issues have not traditionally been at the forefront of concerns for either global mobility professionals or the insurance business.

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As the study’s title suggests, mental health often carries a stigma, not just amongst the expat community but across society at large.  Expatriates often characterized as being highly independent may resist even the idea of acknowledging mental wellbeing challenges.

Other research shows that assignees suffer higher levels of depression, clinical stress, and incidents of mental health crises.  Correspondingly, international assignees are more prone to substance abuse, alcoholism, and divorce.  The lack of a support network can leave assignees feeling isolated.

Leveraging help when needed is not easy when it is stigmatized and you are expected to find your inner strength and simply carry on. 

This attitude needs to change. The assignee should feel safe if they need to seek help.

The employer’s duty of care is to provide support in a way that allows the employee to feel comfortable.  Accessing services that support mental wellbeing should be as straightforward as accessing help for a physical health matter.

The stressful nature of an international assignment

Mental wellbeing is often impacted by stress.  It is well known that moving home ranks very high on stress scales, often immediately following life-changing events such as birth, marriage, death, divorce, and physical health issues.  Stress, in turn, has a negative impact on an individual´s mental health. 

Global Mobility professionals cannot make stressful events disappear but they can work to reduce some of the stress that assignees experience.   

Here are three ways that Global Mobility professionals can implement a duty of care policy:

1.  Assess employees as to suitability for their assignment

The starting point must be to ensure that the assignee is the right candidate with the right skills at the right stage in their career and life. 

This goes beyond whether they can do their job well.  Do they have the right cultural and soft skills to function in a different country? 

Often people who perform highly at home are unable to transfer those skills into a foreign context. 

We are often told that you should leave your personal life at home, and your work life at work.  But an international assignment blurs the lines.

  • Does the assignee have infirm parents who need regular visits? 
  • Are their children on the verge of important exams?
  • How easy will they find it to build a new social network?

Sending the right person is not just a job for the hiring manager or for a Talent team.  Global Mobility has a responsibility to the company and the individual to ensure that the candidate is fully rounded – not just technically equipped – to succeed in the host country.

2.  Offer concrete support programs

The 2015 EY Global Mobility Survey highlighted that two-thirds of failed assignments are due to the inability of a family member to adjust to the new country.

It is surprising that many partners never speak to anyone in the Global Mobility team until something goes wrong. 

All the communication is with the assignee, and the family often feel that they are an inconvenient addition to the personal effects inventory. The whole family has moved, and often those accompanying family members have sacrificed more than the assignee.

Organizations must ensure that they do not send families abroad and expect them to navigate their own path to success. 

Their duty of care does not end when the assignee lands in the host country.  

Assignees need additional support to help them rebuild their lives in a new country:

  • Support services

The assignee and their family may experience a lack of social interaction and a solid support network.  There are a range of services available, such as Employee Support Services, that can provide practical support on the ground. 

Having a medical concierge service available for confidential talking therapies can be an easy to way to intercept a more significant issue.

  • Provide look-see visits

In the age of cost-cutting, it is tempting to cut back on look-see visits.  Or offer it just to the assignee.  Involving the whole family, including children, means that you are supporting the family in making the right decisions, and helping them take ownership of the move. 

Partners and older children, in particular, should be able to assess their own comfort levels for living, working, and going to school in the host country.  Their mental wellbeing needs to be looked after as well. 

  • Buddy schemes

Coaching, mentoring, or a buddy system can all supplement, and in some cases minimize, the need for psychological support or formal counseling.   In fact, one of the most effective support programs need not cost you anything at all.  Setting up a group of assignees and spouses as a “Welcome Team” to meet new arrivals and help them settle in is an easy way to provide a mutual support group that can really relate to the challenges facing all family members.

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3.  Provide appropriate training

Adapting to a new country is a stressful ordeal.  When you add a language barrier into the mix you are only adding more stress.

Providing access to language training to the assignee and their family is a small financial investment with a huge potential return.

It is often the assignee’s partner who has more of a need for language training than an employee immersed in a global environment during the day. 

Children, although often more adaptable to language learning, may need support in building their confidence if they are encountering a language barrier for the first time.

Even without the need to learn a new language, a new culture can leave an assignee vulnerable to feelings of being left in the dark or left behind when cultural references dropped into a conversation mean nothing.

And of course, moving to a new culture where language, values, lifestyle and working practices are vastly different magnifies the challenges of adapting and fitting in.  All of this can cause significant stress to the employee and their family. 

Furthermore, family members may not be experiencing the same level of stress for the same reasons or at the same time. 

Additional training you should consider:

  • Emergency first aid: particularly where local healthcare is of a lower standard, or where there are significant language challenges
  • Personal security training: you can’t guarantee the safety of every assignee, but you can give them tools to increase their confidence

There are of course many other ways that you can train assignees and their families, depending on their situation. One of the best things you can do is to ask them what they think they need, particularly once they have returned from the orientation visit.

Providing training for practical situations reduces stress and anxiety, increases confidence, and reassures the family that you are investing in them as individuals, and are there to support them.  This means they are more likely to come to you with a problem before it’s too late.

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Normalizing approaches to mental wellbeing

Global Mobility professionals have a duty of care to ensure that they maximize the chances of a successful international assignment for the employee and their family. 

It is crucial to recognize that stressful situations are an inherent part of a relocation, especially if far from home and in a very different environment.

Solutions should include mental health support for the employee and their family without negative repercussions.  This should involve a robust mental health care policy, ancillary support services, and a supportive, positive attitude whenever mental health assistance is requested.

Reducing stress, making it easier for independent, self-sufficient employees to accept help as a positive choice will take time, but should be included in any good organization’s relocation policy.

Mental and physical wellbeing should be treated with equal importance and added to the tools required to ensure a smooth transition to the expatriate’s new assignment.