Supporting the health and wellbeing of international or dispersed teams can be challenging, especially when occupational health practitioners may also be navigating the pandemic across multiple countries. But, as Sarah Dennis outlines, it is vital to recognise that managing the health needs of overseas’ workers goes much deeper than just Covid-19.
When it comes to supporting health and wellbeing, the focus for many companies has been on navigating the ever-changing landscape of the Covid-19 pandemic, and understandably so.
This is particularly the case for companies who have staff overseas: just as the situation with the pandemic regularly changes in the UK, so it does in every country, so there’s a lot to manage. However, it is vital that support for everyday illnesses is not overlooked.
It’s important to remember, first of course, that there is no NHS abroad. Employees who have been used to being able to call their GP in the UK and get health concerns checked out will find a very different landscape when working abroad. They’ll look to their employer for how to find support, and it’s important that employers are able to offer it.
The added challenge for employers, HR and occupational health practitioners is that their overseas workforce is often remote. A head office might be based in the UK, with staff posted throughout the world. So it’s even more important that there are robust and clear processes to support people.
Recognising issues that may develop
Health and overseas working
Some employees will develop health issues while they’re working abroad, possibly even related to their work placement. Musculoskeletal conditions can arise or be exacerbated from bad working posture, long hours, or not having access to usual sporting and fitness activities such as a gym or running club.
Mental health can also be challenged as a result of being away from family and friends. Feelings of isolation, and pressures of work can be more difficult to manage in unfamiliar surroundings.
It’s important for employers to be aware of such risks and put support in place. It needs to be wide-ranging and well signposted, so that employees can access it quickly and easily as and when required.
This might include access to apps to help improve fitness, and global employee assistance programmes where international specialists can offer targeted and personalised support.
Making advice easily available
It’s a good idea to put in place access to medical information services from qualified experts to enable employees to obtain professional support. It can be particularly useful for overseas employees to have access to digital health and wellbeing services, such as virtual GPs.”
Many everyday illnesses can be dealt with using ‘self-care’, under the right advice and guidance. These include conditions like flu, tonsilitis, colds and sunburn. But it is important that employees follow appropriate advice.
With so much information available on the internet it can be difficult for people to know what advice to follow, and of course, it can be dangerous to follow the wrong advice.
It’s a good idea to put in place access to medical information services from qualified experts to enable employees to obtain professional support. It can be particularly useful for overseas employees to have access to digital health and wellbeing services, such as virtual GPs.
Others will want or need to see a GP in person, so this should be made available where possible. Medication that’s commonplace in the UK, might not be overseas, so it’s also important to ensure that employees have access to dispensing of medication.
Managing chronic conditions
Employees may well be working overseas with an ongoing chronic health condition. Broadly defined as lasting more than a year and requiring ongoing medical treatment, chronic conditions include diabetes, heart disease and arthritis.
Employers and employees need to be aware that travel insurance will not cover such pre-existing and ongoing conditions, so fuller health and wellbeing support is required. Indeed, travel insurance is only ever meant for relatively short trips abroad and is not sufficient for employees working overseas.
Employees who have been taking medication for chronic conditions need to check if they are available in their host country and may need assistance in finding alternatives abroad. Chronic conditions may not be life-threatening, but they can be severely life-inhibiting. It is important, therefore that support is in place for them to be properly managed.
Warning signs of something more serious
International health and wellbeing specialists can advise on the type of support that’s most appropriate for overseas employees. They will have access to local knowledge where employees are based, what support is available locally, and what additional support will be needed.”
It’s also important to understand whether employees have a serious condition that needs support.
In the UK we’re used to cancer screening programmes run by the NHS, such as cervical, breast and bowel. Employees may miss out on these when working abroad, so it’s important that they still have access to health checks, screening, diagnosis and treatment if required.
There are various warning signs that something serious may be wrong. Unexplained weight loss/gain, blood when coughing, or feeling tired or thirsty for no obvious reason can all be signs of a more serious condition, and it is vital that employees abroad get them checked out.
International health and wellbeing specialists can advise on the type of support that’s most appropriate for overseas employees. They will have access to local knowledge where employees are based, including what support is available locally and what additional support will be needed.
This can also be targeted to staff demographics and particular requirements. Overseas employees have specific needs and challenges, and international specialists can be a great help for companies in terms of knowing what should really be put in place.
Working abroad can be memorable and wonderful, but it can also bring its own challenges and stresses. Employers can support their overseas staff by ensuring that getting support for their health and wellbeing is one thing that they don’t have to worry about.