How HR policy can help combat expat mental health issues

November 08, 2018

If you are a global human resource manager, a percentage of your employees are likely to work as expatriates. There are many challenges when it comes to managing expat employees including the complex issue of mental health and wellbeing.

Research from countries around the world show mental health to be one of the most challenging aspects of Human Resource Management (HRM) in 2018. A statistic from Australia showed 80% of HR professionals spend one quarter of their time managing people with mental health issues. In the US, an estimated 43 million people suffer from depression and it is one of the leading causes of disability. It is estimated that untreated depression costs business in the US more than $100 billion annually in absenteeism, productivity and presentism.

There are additional difficulties for employees on international assignment that may exacerbate mental illness, including:

  • Living away from family, friends and support network
  • Working in an unfamiliar culture
  • The pressure of a new role

Following HR best practice around mental health provides a better experience  for the individual and company. It is important that global HRM’s work with new and existing expats to maintain and strengthen their mental health.

There are many tactics for promotion of mental health throughout your organisation:

Key to managing mental health issues amongst employees is reducing the stigma around talking about mental illness in the workplace. Start at the top by ensuring all members of senior management complete training on how to spot signs of depression and other mental illnesses in employees. Ensure pre-departure training for employees contains modules on work related stress, expat depression and other mental health problems. This will enable employees to spot signs of mental illness early, but most importantly provide a course of action to seek treatment as soon as possible.
Consider providing expat employees with a local mentor in their new home who can introduce them to colleagues in the office and provide insider knowledge about life in their destination country. In some companies, a support team is made up of HR representatives and in country managers who sponsor works with expats during their assignment.

There are a number of ways that HRM can promote mental health within the workplace that will benefit both expat and local employees:

Nutrition: eating well is important for good mental health. Provide healthy food and snack options at work. Discourage over an dependence on caffeine and sugar, both of which are linked to mental illness.    

Exercise: physical health is intrinsically linked to mental wellbeing. Provide on-site fitness classes if possible, or if not, try to negotiate a discount at a local gym or a discount on an activity tracker. Encourage employees to establish company sports teams, 5-a-side soccer, running and triathlon teams are particularly popular. See if there are intercompany leagues they could enter.

Mindfulness: based on the ancient practice of meditation, mindfulness is a simple but useful technique to maintain mental health. Provide staff training and facilitate practice on regular basis. The great thing about mindfulness is it doesn’t take a lot of time, 10-15 minutes a day has been shown to make a difference to our wellbeing.

Allowing expat employees flexible work arrangements can be particularly helpful in the initial stages of their assignment. Although not every role is suitable for working from home, where possible it can provide expats with a mental break from their commute and being in the office. Some companies have even seen a 35% jump in employee productivity by offering a work from home option.
Finally, if problems do occur, provide expat employees with access to the help and assistance needed with a confidential employee assistance programme. Check with your international health insurer to see if they provide an employee assistance programme. If not consider moving to one that does.
Managing expat mental health will benefit both expat employees and the business. If you are in the market for international health insurance that takes a holistic approach to your employee’s wellbeing, get in touch, we would be delighted to answer any questions you have.