How to Support the Mental Health and Well-being of International Assignees
July 28, 2022
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Learn how your global mobility program can protect and support the mental health of your employees abroad.
Mental health is one of the leading health concerns worldwide. Although mental health has received increasing media attention over the past years, many people struggle to manage their illnesses.
Outside of genetic predisposition, stress is a leading contributor to mental health issues – an issue with which international assignees are intimately familiar. Although international assignments can provide an array of career development and advancement opportunities, uprooting one’s life is undeniably taxing – emotionally and physically. One study by the International Journal of Mental Health in 2011 declared that 56% of expats experienced anxiety or depression, compared to only 21% of domestic workers.
Though companies may not be legally required to support their assignees’ mental health needs, many organizations are now taking steps toward helping employees in need.
Let’s look at some of the ways enterprise organizations can support the mental well-being of their employees throughout their assignments.
Removing the Stigma surrounding mental health
Research conducted by the World Health Organization shows a 13% increase in mental health conditions over the last decade. By 2030, depression is projected to rank first in global burden of disease. Similarly alarming, depression is slated to surpass heart disease and cancer as the most chronic disease worldwide by 2030.
Employees on global assignments are uniquely vulnerable to increased depression, stress, and other mental health concerns. In addition, the challenges associated with adapting to a new culture and work environment can often lead to substance abuse, alcoholism, and social/family issues. Therefore, supporting employees through challenging relocation and assignment processes should be viewed with a level of importance that mirrors that of other physical diseases and health issues.
Depression, anxiety, and other mental health concerns haven’t been a standard focus for globally mobile organizations until recent years. Although companies are becoming more socially conscious of such issues, mental health can often carry an unfair stigma to those affected. Therefore, acknowledging mental health concerns and creating a company culture of honest communication around mental wellness is vital to protecting the well-being of both employees and their organizations at large.
Normalizing mental health can make employees more comfortable sharing their concerns and issues. Normalization involves a comprehensive mental health care policy, ancillary support assistance, and an accepting and supportive approach whenever mental health services are requested.
Why are international assignments stressful?
Moving is often considered one of the most stressful life decisions. Whether you’re moving across town, country, or the globe, adapting to a new lifestyle, culture, or surroundings is never easy. Relocating for an assignment adds an entirely new layer of stress to the equation.
Some of the factors that make international assignments stressful include:
- Moving without family/friends: global assignments often require professionals to leave their friends and family behind. Coping with the stresses of a new culture and work environment without the support of loved ones can cause social and psychological difficulties.
- Adapting to a new culture: moving to a new country requires embracing an unfamiliar culture in a new environment. Understanding a new location’s social ethics, languages, and other factors can be demanding for any assignee.
- Changing work expectations: although companies may have locations that span various regions throughout the globe, expectations per site may vary widely. Altering roles, increasing workloads and responsibilities, and adjusting to new work routines can activate emotional or stress triggers.
Three ways to support assignees’ mental health
Recognizing that stressful circumstances are an intrinsic part of relocation is essential. Reducing stress and making it simpler for assignees to request and accept help will take time but should include:
Assessments of employee suitability
Aside from an employee’s occupational skill set, leaders should determine an assignee’s personal strengths to assess whether they may be an appropriate fit for international relocation assignments. The first step toward initiating an assignment should be to establish a comprehensive candidate assessment program in order to ensure the assignee is mentally and professionally adaptable for the role. While many high-performing employees can perform their duties at a domestic level, not all professionals will be capable of adapting to an international role. Some employees might lack the cultural and soft skills necessary for international assignment success.
If needed, the selection of the best candidate assessment supplier partner should be driven via a robust RFP process. The depth and breadth of each supplier prospect’s assessment tools will be a primary consideration.
Easily available support
As an employer, companies should look to supply resources that help employees maximize their potential while addressing stressors through resources and support. Providing therapy, coaching, mentoring, and employee support services can ease global assignees’ transition to new countries and environments. These solutions should be easily accessible and available to your employees and their families without adverse repercussions.
Once on assignment, methodologies are imperative to keep the assignee and family connected to their home/host country work and personal lives. Companies should consider policies that formalize support systems at both the home and host locations. For example, trips home could include a company-sponsored event that includes colleagues, friends, and family. In the host country, a “buddy system” of colleagues who have been on assignment and/or have experience in new assignee support will expedite acclimation to a new country and company culture.
Appropriate training for the assignee and their family
Practical training, such as language and cultural training, reduces stress and increases confidence and independence. Because cultural immersion is significantly more complicated when an assignee doesn’t speak the host country’s native tongue, language training is more frequently authorized as a standard policy benefit. Providing robust access to language and cultural training for employees and their families is an investment that will protect the company’s investment and ultimate ROI goals.
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