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The positive effects that working abroad has on employee mental health

PUBLISHED: 19 October 2020 | LAST UPDATED: 4 February 2021

New research reveals the impact that taking on an international assignment has upon mental health

A major new piece of research* by AXA Global Healthcare has shed light on the impact that working on an international business assignment has upon mental health. Of the 500 international workers who were surveyed in seven different countries, just one-in-ten (10%) said that working abroad has had a negative impact on their mental health.

A particularly interesting finding was that more experienced expats were increasingly likely to feel that international working had a positive impact on their mental health. Almost half (48%) of those who have done either two or three placements said that international working has had a positive impact on their mental health, which rose to 52% for those who had completed either four or five assignments and increased again to 61% for those who have completed more than six placements.

Andy Edwards, Global Head of International Healthcare, AXA Global Healthcare, commented: “Working abroad is rewarding, but can be extremely challenging too, especially at the start of an assignment. Being distanced from your regular support network, in a location that you might not know well, and trying to perform the best you can in a new role can easily impact your mental wellbeing. That said, it’s heartening to see that so many international assignees have, on the whole, found working abroad to be a positive experience. Now though, with the continuing restrictions required by the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s more important than ever that employers make sure these international workers have ready access to appropriate mental health services, so that they can maintain positive mental wellbeing and get help whenever they need it.”

In general, international workers are positive about the mental health support that they receive. Three quarters (73%) of those surveyed agreed that their employer recognises mental health is as important as physical health. However, it seems there is still room for improvement when it comes to tangible support. Two-thirds (64%) said that their employer could do more to support their mental health, while half (50%) went so far as to say that their employer will only offer mental health support in response to a crisis or significant event.

This is an interesting discovery, considering that the research, which also surveyed nearly 550 HR decision-makers, suggests employers feel a great deal more positive about the support that their organisations offer. Not only do nine-in-ten (87%) agree that their organisation recognises mental health is as important as physical health, but a similar number (88%) actually believe that their organisation is proactive when it comes to mental health support.

Andy Edwards concluded: “While many international workers clearly seem to feel that their employers recognise the importance of positive mental health, there seems to be some disconnect between how proactively they and their employers think it is being offered. This could be because employers aren’t communicating the support available as regularly as is needed to stay front of mind. Putting mental health at the centre of a wellbeing strategy for international workers – one which includes proactive communications – may be a good way to quickly bridge this gap. So, too, is looking at services which offer proactive pathways into mental health support. 

“At AXA Global Healthcare, we’re piloting a new mind health proposition, which is fully integrated with our virtual doctor service to give members one point of access for both physical and mental health advice. Given the unquestionable impact that a new assignment has on international workers’ lifestyle and wellbeing, a strategy such as this would have significant business value.”