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Caroline Walmsley, Global Head of HR, AXA Global Healthcare

How to support expat employees’ mental wellbeing

PUBLISHED: 16 September 2021 | LAST UPDATED: 2 October 2023

For many expat employees, working abroad on a placement is a massive change that, though incredibly exciting, will inevitably pose challenges. Our research* on the effects of working abroad on expat employees actually found that one in five (20%) have experienced a mental health issue during an international work placement.

That’s why we believe aligning the needs of assignees with mental health support is so important. Within the ever-changing environment of globally mobile business – and especially with the impact of COVID-19 – we know that family circumstances, length of placement and workplace seniority can all affect the challenges facing assignees. 

So, what support should be readily available? The truth is that there are several ways an employer can help their assignees to take care of their mental wellbeing. 

Design a solid strategy with wellbeing at the core 

By focusing on mental health, and consistently shouting about the services that are available, employers can target two areas at once. Making mental health part of the conversation is a great way to show up areas of improvement for your strategy, as well as making it known to employees what’s available.  

Promote what’s available, regularly 

It’s no use having mental health support services in place if employees don’t know about them. The best way to take care of your employees is to make sure that every employee knows what support is available to them, and their families, along with the benefits it can bring. We found that nearly half (46%) of international assignees weren’t offered an expat support group, which would go a long way towards tackling the common problem of loneliness and isolation. 

Inclusivity in your strategy 

Promoting your mental wellbeing strategy is only half the battle. You need also to ensure that it’s readily available to all members of the team, regardless of seniority. Our research found a stark contrast: that no owner or board members have experienced trouble accessing mental health support, while 31% of junior staff claim to have struggled. It’s important that a mental health strategy is accessible and leaves no one behind.

Offer effective, preventative support 

This brings us nicely on to our next recommendation. Two-thirds (64%) of employees said that their employer could do more to support their mental health and half (50%) agree that their employer only offers support in response to a crisis. It’s common knowledge that taking care of your wellbeing needs constant attention. Likewise, we know that struggling to adapt to the culture of the work country is the number one reason as to why assignments fail. Providing your employees with peer support and preparation classes will do wonders for their ability to integrate, feel at home and ultimately get the most out of the opportunity. For all levels of staff, preventative is better than crisis support.

Consider going virtual 

With the impact of COVID-19 accelerating us into the virtual world, we need to adapt and learn what works. With 86% of assignees saying that technology helped maintain relationships during lockdown, it’s worth structuring your wellbeing services with this in mind. After all, our research suggests that using technology to talk to a professional from your own country can help build a bond of trust and support that could be harder to achieve with a foreign doctor. These services can have a significant impact on assignees’ wellbeing. 

International assignments create incredible growth opportunities for businesses and employees alike. That’s why we think employers must have a wellbeing strategy that focuses on the unique needs of international assignees settling into a new culture. Utilising technologies and promoting a preventative approach will go a long way towards helping ease the challenges assignees face. 

To read more about our research, please find the full report here

The information in this article is correct at the time of publishing.