Expatriate workers need support from employer

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  • A pre-assignment briefing on what the employee can expect in their new country will help them settle more quickly.
  • Health screenings can highlight problems, but employers could be accused of discrimination if they use this information to cancel an assignment.
  • A support framework will help identify any potential health problems. This could be a club for expatriates, a weekly phone call or an employee assistance programme.
  • International private medical insurance includes important benefits for expats.

Employees posted abroad need plenty of support, both physical and psychological, says Sam Barrett

Expatriates can lead a high-pressure lifestyle. Stress, a poor work-life balance and being away from their home comforts can cause all manner of health problems. Iain Laws, commercial director of consultancy Enrich, says: “Being an expat is not conducive to good health. The work-hard, play-hard lifestyle can lead to psychological problems as well as physical ones. For example, alcohol abuse can be common in expat communities. But if employers are proactive, they can safeguard their employees’ wellbeing overseas.”

Pre-assignment discussion

Pre-travel preparation is key. Steve Desborough, senior consultant at Watson Wyatt, says it is essential employees are aware of what they will encounter before they go. “A pre-assignment discussion that runs through the culture of the country, its religion and any diseases they might encounter is sensible,” he says. “This will prepare them for the new country and help them settle in more quickly.”

Many international medical insurers can put together this information for employers. For example, Bupa International and Cigna International provide country-specific information, covering everything from the exchange rate and climate to how to access local healthcare.

As well as giving an employee this information, it is also useful to provide it to their partner if they are accompanying them on the assignment. Mandy Rutter, clinical manager at Axa Icas, says one of the commonest problems with working overseas is where the employee is happy but their partner wants to return home. “Getting them involved with the pre-assignment briefings will make them feel included. This can be important because they will not necessarily have the network of support the employee has in the new workplace.”

Consider health screening

Pre-assignment health screening may also be worth considering. For example, if an employee is being posted to a country with basic healthcare facilities, it is prudent to find out whether they have a health problem, such as a heart condition, that could flare up during their assignment.

Psychological screening could also be undertaken. “There is no way of knowing what staff will miss when they are posted abroad, but this service will highlight any mismatch between the employee’s expectations and the reality,” says Rutter. “Understanding this helps to reduce the culture shock.”

But care must be taken about how the results of any health screening are used. Desborough says: “It is tricky. On one side, there is a potential issue with regard to discrimination if the employer says the employee cannot go, but there is also the employer’s duty of care to protect the employee.”

Check likely everyday risks

Whether screening unearths a major health issue or shows an employee is fighting fit, it is also good to consider the everyday risks they will encounter. Employers could provide vaccinations or malaria tablets, if needed, or a basic healthcare kit. In developing countries, needles are often reused, so providing clean ones can be reassuring.

Being prepared before departure can make a big difference to the success of an assignment, but employers should also be proactive while the employee is away. Rachel Floyd, operations director at PMI Health Group, says: “When an employee is posted overseas, they are away from their usual support networks, even things like going for a drink after work to let off steam might not be possible. I would recommend giving them access to a support mechanism such as a global employee assistance programme, but employers might also want to set up a regular telephone call or provide them with a buddy in the new office.”

Private medical insurance vital

International private medical insurance is also important, picking up the cost of any healthcare an employee needs while abroad. Many policies also include benefits such as primary care, expatriation or repatriation and cover for pre-existing conditions that would not feature on a domestic plan. These can be essential when an employee is overseas.

As well as focusing on the posting, Floyd also recommends planning employees’ return. “There can be culture shock when someone returns after a long posting, so make sure they are psychologically prepared to come back,” she says. “And, especially if they have been somewhere exotic, consider health screening to make sure they have not picked up any tropical diseases.”