Overseas workers: out of sight, out of mind?

An overseas posting brings with it exciting opportunities to experience diverse cultures; taste new food; learn a foreign language; participate in different ways of working; and make new friends and acquaintances. Sometimes, however, the experience can become overwhelming and bewildering.

According to the World Health Organisation, expatriates and travellers often report experiencing feelings of isolation and anxiety. Separation from family and friends and the lack of familiar social support systems can often lead to increased levels of stress and, ultimately, to physical and psychological problems.

Being unable to cope with these feelings is a common reason for an overseas placement to fail. Statistics from the specialist website Expatica suggest that as many as 30% of overseas assignments fail.

In the worst-case scenario, employees can suffer from marital break-up, depression and alcoholism, with such problems proving difficult to spot until performance is seriously affected.

In the wake of the global economic downturn and the resultant squeeze on budgets, have the necessary levels of support slipped down the corporate agenda? Recent research by PMI Global highlights the need for many employers that assign staff overseas to pay more attention to their duty of care. The study revealed that 32% of companies fail to make regular contact with staff working abroad and that one in 10 leaves its expat employees totally in the dark when it comes to health advice. A further 24% do not provide any form of Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) for psychological support while working overseas.

Yet recognition of the need for pre-­travel psychological assessments is on the rise. International companies are increasingly aware of how foreign assignments have failed because employees being sent abroad were psychologically unfit to go. How can employers ensure that their staff overseas are looked after to the same level as those back home?

Preparing for culture shock

In the critical period in the run-up to an overseas posting, employees often have very little opportunity to prepare themselves and their families for the culture-shock of a move abroad.

The old maxim “forewarned is forearmed” has never been more true. Before your employees head to the other side of the planet they should be given practical tips and advice on how they and their families should prepare for their new locations. This will inevitably include health advice on vaccinations and anti-malarials but should also cover an in-depth introduction to the risks of local diseases and ailments and how to avoid them.

Employees often harbour unrealistic expectations of a utopia of gin and tonic parties, luxury accommodation and private beach clubs. They should be made aware of the cons as well as the pros of the new environment and be given clear information about how previous colleagues have coped with such challenges.

Those returning to the UK should be encouraged to take their replacements and their families to dinner armed with photo albums and be prepared to talk about the realities of the location, from finding your way around the public transport system and buying a loaf of bread to avoiding cultural faux pas. It is also advisable to give employees plenty of opportunity to talk to their future work colleagues in advance.

An in-depth psychological assessment can flag up potential stress points ahead of departure and help to predict how employees will get on with colleagues in the new location. Similarly, a wider medical healthcheck can identify and address any potential medical problems, giving staff reassurance and peace of mind and, hopefully, preventing crises later on.

Keeping in touch

Good communication with the UK is the cornerstone of any successful overseas posting. At the very least, monthly contact with an HR or OH representative back home is essential. This does not mean simply continuing to e-mail them the company newsletter. In an ideal world, every employee sent overseas should be allocated their own UK business coach.

Practical support, like giving your staff a webcam and access to free internet calls via Skype, can also help to alleviate the sense of alienation which can occur early on.

Expats can have a tendency to be globe-trotting workaholics, prepared to work very long hours to fulfil company and career objectives. Work-life balance is an important component of long-term health so employers might consider including health club membership as part of the relocation package.

As well as giving staff round-the-clock telephone counselling support, an EAP can provide your staff with quick and easy access to legal, financial and specialist information services, reducing the emotional impact that such concerns can have.

Face-to-face counselling can enable employees who are struggling with a difficult transition to regain or maintain control of their lives. Solution-focused brief therapy is a highly effective approach which targets what clients want to achieve through ­therapy, rather than on the problems that made them seek help in the first place.

Being ill overseas can be a frightening experience. Employees need reassurance about the standards of local medical care or alternatives. Having access to fully trained and English-speaking doctors online can be reassuring.

It is also critical to promote the support offered effectively via posters and a helpline card for all staff as part of the induction process. Organise on-site briefings, publish an article about working overseas in staff magazines or newsletters and ensure it is included in line manager workbooks.

Promote good health to expat employees on a dedicated section of your intranet. Invite the EAP provider to man a stand outside canteen areas to answer specific questions at an individual level.

Make sure there are regular review meetings with the EAP provider to ensure familiarity with any policy changes or protocols which might affect how it offers care and support.

It is said that it takes two years to get used to a new country. It certainly takes time and effort to put out the social tendrils and replace networks of friends and family back home. Any occupational health effort ignores the rest of the family at its peril. If the partner (an estimated 20% of so-called ‘trailing spouses’ are now men) loses their career independence, it can quickly lead to problems with insecurity and depression which could eventually jeopardise the placement, if the spouse demands to return home or the marriage breaks up. Wives may not be permitted to work in many Middle Eastern countries, but cultural adaptation for the growing number of male spouses without a clearly defined role may be even more problematic.

Homeward bound

Readjusting to the home culture after a long spell overseas and picking up a new professional role can sometimes prove to be just as stressful as the initial secondment. A survey in 2006 by Pricewaterhouse­Coopers (PwC) and Cranfield School of Management, Measuring the Value of International Assignments, found that, on average, 15% of international assignees resigned within 12 months of completing their posting because of a failure to prepare properly for repatriation.

People who have spent years working across varied markets and cultures are not always happy to return to the same desk and the same career prospects. In the absence of a clear direction, many former expats exploit their newly-acquired skills and hard-won experience by moving ­elsewhere.

Make the effort to welcome them back to the UK. This could be a simple gesture like sending a company representative to the airport to meet a returning employee or helping them to find schools for children or employment for spouses.

A medical review and personal debrief for the whole family can also prove vital during this time, particularly for younger family members who may feel uprooted and disenfranchised.

Rachael Floyd is operations director at PMI Health Group.

For an A to Z guide on looking after your staff abroad, visit www.pmiglobalhealth.com/atoz

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