How can employers deliver a valued benefits package for expatriates?


An overseas assignment can be rewarding for employee and employer alike. But, whether based in Brussels or Bogota, having the right employee benefits and support for expatriates is a must.

For starters, an expatriate remuneration package needs to be attractive. Penny Pemberton, principal at Aon Employee Benefits, says: “[Organisations] compete for quality expatriates so need to provide competitive benefit packages. Financially, employees value an increased salary but also assistance with relocation, specifically travel, accommodation and, if they have children, education costs.”

First aid
When it comes to the benefits, medical insurance is top of the list. According to research published by Bupa Global in November 2017, 73% of employees working abroad expected this and 66% say that not having cover would be a deal breaker.

Without the NHS to fall back on, an international plan has to offer much more generous cover than a UK scheme. As well as the standard in and out-patient cover, additional benefits can include GP appointments, dental, routine maternity, cover for chronic conditions and, especially where someone is in an area where healthcare facilities are underdeveloped, evacuation.

Telehealth services are increasingly part of the package, enabling employees to facetime a GP that speaks their language whenever they like. This can be really valued, says Liam Hughes, European sales and client management director at Cigna Global. “In the oil and gas sectors, an employee might be in the middle of nowhere with just a laptop or a phone,” he explains. “It can be reassuring to know medical advice is within reach.”

As well as ensuring expats have access to quality healthcare while they are away, pre-assignment health screening is also important, says Hughes. “An employee or a member of their family may have an ongoing health condition such as asthma or diabetes,” he explains. “Flagging this up before they go can ensure they know how to manage it while overseas. Drugs may have different names or the employee might want to arrange additional medication before they go.”

Home comforts
Employers should also consider benefits and services unique to expat employees. Debra Corey, group reward director at Reward Gateway, says: “Being an expat can be challenging, especially in the first few months. An employer needs to ensure these employees have all the support they need, emotionally and financially, to get on and do their job.”

International employee assistance programmes are important. Given the cultural differences and the potential for loneliness, these services can provide practical support and help to prevent an employee developing more serious mental health issues. Provision should also be extended to any family members relocating with the employee because, where an assignment goes wrong, it can often be due to the partner being unable to settle.

Some employers will also offer more formal support in the first few weeks of an assignment. This can include a workplace buddy or someone to offer an in-country meet and greet, says Will Fossey, international director of recruitment agency NRL. “A meet and greeter can use their local knowledge to help with everyday basics like navigating public transport, hiring a car and identifying the best place to live,” he explains. “They can also support expats with the legislation and tax compliance, accompanying them to government meetings and assisting with paperwork where there are language issues.”

Support can go beyond the initial few weeks too. For example, where an employee is expected to pay tax in the host country, it is common for employers to provide at least a year’s worth of tax advice so they get to grips with the different regime.

Cultural training can also help. Corey says that when she first came to work in the UK from her native US, she was sent on a two-day cultural induction programme. “This can be a great way to introduce an expat to the country they’re going to be based in and remove some of the challenges they might face,” she explains.

Home or away
Another key consideration will be whether benefits are provided by the home or the host country. Often the employee’s individual circumstances will determine this. Adam Harding, international business development manager at Jelf, explains: “It can depend on factors such as where they are in their career; whether they have a partner with them; if there are any children; and whether they’re looking to localise eventually or just complete a fixed-term assignment.”

Regulations can also come into play. For example, in some countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Australia, having medical insurance is part of the visa requirements, says Pemberton. Regulators will dictate the level of cover and, in some instances, where the policy is sold.

To add further complexity, it is also possible to provide some benefits on an international basis. International pension plans, such as those offered by Zurich and Royal Bank of Canada, are examples of this, says Terry McSweeny, markets and solutions leader for Western Europe and GB at Willis Towers Watson. “These are portable so can suit a career expat who is planning to move between countries,” he explains. “Ultimately though, with any expat package, the employer will look to match or exceed existing benefits to ensure the employee isn’t worse off. For instance, it might mean offering extra years on a defined benefit pension.”

Given this, a mash-up of different benefit deliveries can work well. “It will often be a blended approach,” say Corey. “It can be hard to move some benefits but employers also need to ensure that everyone feels they’re being treated in a similar way.”

For example, where an employee’s benefit package is delivered by their home office, adding in some of the local perks can help them settle in, without breaking the bank. This might be the case for benefits such as a discount platform or subsidised gym membership.

But, whether benefits are provided by the home or host country, regular communication is critical, says Corey. “An expat employee can feel very isolated so it’s really important that the employer communicates with them more than normal,” she explains. “These expat employees cost an organisation around three times as much as a local employee, so it’s essential that they have everything they need to succeed.”