Global mobility: Take a bespoke approach to employee wellbeing

With global mobility increasing, research shows the need for employers to look at the individual needs of staff to ensure wellbeing, says John Kaye of Cigna Global Health Benefits.

In a global marketplace, businesses increasingly need their employees to be more mobile, taking on both short and long-term assignments in new territories that may be very different to what they are used to at home.

Research from consultancy PricewaterhouseCoopers reveals that the number of employees working outside their home market has increased by 25% over the past decade, and predicts a further 50% growth in mobile staff by 2020. However, to perform at their best, these employees need to feel protected and supported as they adjust to their new roles in unfamiliar surroundings – and a one-size-fits-all approach to the globally mobile workforce is unlikely to be enough.

Research by Cigna Global Health Benefits reveals the demographics of this type of workforce are changing.

While men remain much more likely to take on expatriate roles – accounting for 81% of the globally mobile workforce – the number of women on overseas assignments is growing.

Employees are also getting older – 59% are between the ages of 35 and 54 – and fewer are taking their families with them, with just 29% opting to do so, according to Cigna’s research. Short-term assignments are increasing too, and the number of employees taking a series of roles abroad is also on the rise.

HR departments that treat their globally mobile workforce as a homogenous group are therefore unlikely to fulfil all the needs of some of their staff. For example, women may have different health concerns to men; older workers may have particular healthcare needs; and employees travelling with families will be concerned about protecting their loved ones as well as themselves.

What is needed is a bespoke approach to global mobility. In practice, that means solutions designed with individual requirements in mind that are delivered before, during and after an expatriate assignment.

Notably, the Cigna study highlighted employees’ needs for more relevant information before they depart. Some 38% received just one piece of information from their employer in advance of their assignment. If HR teams begin to identify people’s individual needs ahead of time, then something as simple as a pre-assignment questionnaire can be a valuable way to identify issues that will need to be addressed, with follow-up support made available where necessary.

Good preparation will also have an influence on the choice of destination of the employee. Addressing personal circumstances will prevent avoidable high-risk assignments, such as sending a pregnant employee to a country with less well-developed antenatal care.

With the predicted growth in global working, it becomes more important for companies to confront these challenges and send employees overseas feeling prepared. Even before they move they will have had an opportunity to share their concerns about health, will know how to access help when required, and will also have received advice on the local environment and culture they are stepping into.

Fundamental information such as providing the telephone number for emergency services in that country, or the local brand name of their medication, will provide crucial reassurance.

The bespoke approach needs to continue throughout the assignment. For example, 79% of employees access medical care when they’re abroad – but while men are more likely to access local help, overall, women are more likely to seek health advice. HR departments will benefit from thinking about how to address such nuances.

The good news is that digital communication channels offer HR an opportunity to provide much more tailored support for employees in even the most far-flung locations – and represent an efficient use of resources.

Still, there is work to be done here: Cigna’s research shows that while 57% of globally mobile workers think a company intranet is an effective communication tool, 44% don’t know whether or not this resource is available to them, or say that it is not.

Again, companies need to develop bespoke solutions. In some countries, IT infrastructure may be less advanced, with slower computers and low internet bandwidth, making online support far less effective for workers if it’s not designed accordingly. Equally, many employees will also want human contact on occasion and need to know how and where to access this.

Finally, it’s important that HR departments do not forget about the bespoke approach when bringing their staff home.

It is easy to assume that employees will find repatriation straightforward, and many companies provide little support when staff reassimilate in their home markets. Cigna’s research found that just 54% of businesses have a formal repatriation programme and only 20% track their employees after they have returned home.

The message from the research is that returnees worry about all sorts of issues, including: continuity of healthcare; remuneration; tax; and the adjustments that will be necessary for their families.

HR departments able to address those issues one by one – especially those that begin to do so several months before the return date – can provide invaluable support.

The bigger picture here is that while businesses increasingly recognise the importance of health and wellbeing in employee productivity, engagement, absenteeism, recruitment and retention, delivering on their good intentions can be more challenging when dealing with a globally mobile workforce.

A move to a more bespoke approach, harnessing efficient digital tools as well as more traditional channels, must be part of the solution.

John Kaye is managing director Europe of Cigna Global Health Benefits.

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