What support can employers offer for expatriate staff facing natural disasters?

Rescue helicopter/Jaromir Chalabala/ Shutterstock
Rescue helicopter/Jaromir Chalabala/ Shutterstock

Need to know:

  • Pre-assignment risk assessments and briefings can help an expatriate employee feel as prepared as a local if a natural disaster happens.
  • Security risk management firms can support employees with information and support if they are affected by a natural disaster.
  • Employers should check what is included in an evacuation and repatriation service because some only offer it when an employee needs medical attention.

Whether it is a flood, hurricane or an earthquake, dealing with the aftermath of a natural disaster can be challenging and incredibly stressful. As these difficulties are potentially multiplied for anyone working overseas, employers must ensure expatriate employees are supported if the worst does happen.

Having the right protocols in place is essential. Stéphan Malvoisin, senior vice president, partnerships, US at Crisis24, says: “Organisations have a duty of care to look after their employees, wherever they are based. Overseas assignments are also costly. It makes sense to look after these employees.”

Pre-assignment preparations

Wherever an employee is heading, it is essential that employers do their due diligence before they go. Dave Hilton, lead for global mobility solutions at Mercer Marsh Benefits. says: “Employers must understand what could happen in that country, including the risk of any natural disasters, and ensure they have the right support in place if an emergency situation does occur. They should also provide training so the employee knows what to expect and how to respond.”

Pre-assignment security briefings can provide information about everything from the cultural differences to the risks the employee may face in the country they are visiting.

Advice should also take the employee’s personal circumstances into account. Michael Gardiner, special risks analyst at Healix, explains: “We’d consider everything that might affect an employee’s assignment. As an example, someone with pre-existing respiratory problems would need to be made aware of the risk of wildfires if they were going to be based in Canada.”

Emergency response

No matter how well prepared the employee, organisations also need to have appropriate support in place if they do get caught up in a natural disaster. Security risk management firms, such as Crisis24, Healix and International SOS, can provide support either on a standalone basis or as part of an international private medical insurance scheme.

A key part of this is providing information to those affected and their employers. James Wood, regional security director at International SOS, says: “A big focus of our teams is on that critical and timely information and analysis flow. This helps to inform decision makers on the key actions they need to take.”

Additionally, these organisations will provide support on the ground if it is required. This could include shelter, food and water, transport and medical advice and assistance. As an example, Malvoisin points to the 2023 Morocco earthquake. “One employee’s home was completely destroyed and they needed alternative accommodation. We were able to give them a list of 15 hotels nearby that had rooms,” he explains.

Emergency exit

In some situations, it may be necessary for an employee to leave the country altogether, either returning home or going to a safe country nearby. Employees could be evacuated for medical or security reasons, says Gardiner. “The nature of an evacuation depends on the options that are available,” he says. “During the wild fires in Maui, we had to look at the ferries where someone was unable to reach the airport.”

With any evacuation package, it is important to understand what is included. “Some services will only include evacuation or repatriation where the employee is injured: if they’re not injured and they want to go home, they might simply be directed to local emergency services that would typically be the first point of response,” explains Hilton. “In some natural disasters, for instance flooding, evacuation may be impossible.”

Under pressure

As well as taking care of an employee’s safety, it is also important to consider their psychological wellbeing. Being caught up in a natural disaster can be stressful and could potentially lead to post-traumatic stress disorder.

Ensuring employees have access to an employee assistance programme (EAP) is sensible. Harry Key, head of global specialist services at CIC and a member of the Employee Assistance Programme Association (EAPA) board, says: “We recommend employers let their provider know where employees will be based. Then, we can be proactive with support if they’re caught up in an emergency situation.”

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EAPs, but also other products such as medical insurance, can also provide counselling support if someone has been affected by their experience in a natural disaster.

Considering all the possible risks and having the right support in place is a must when sending staff overseas. Being prepared can keep employees safe and make it easier for them to focus on their work, wherever they are and whatever happens.