Expat Mental Health Should Be a Priority for Employers

Expat mental health issues are on the rise, impacting both the well-being of global employees as well as the success of their employers. Taking care of the well-being of international hires and foreign assignees should be a priority for employers wanting to attract skilled employees and retain global talent.

Expat employees need well-rounded support while abroad. However, while relocation programs usually emphasize practical assistance and physical well-being, mental health is often neglected or ignored.

Investing in global employees' well-being will reward employers with increased productivity and talent retention. Not only will these initiatives help create a happier, healthier, and more productive workplace, but these will improve the organization's brand reputation too.

Corporate well-being programs represent the ultimate employer differentiator to attract and retain global talent in a high-competitive work environment, but to be effective, these need to be tailored to different workforce segments — including expat employees.

What Mental Health Is and Why It Matters

Mental health is a state of well-being in which individuals are able to cope with the normal stresses of life, be productive at work, and contribute to their community. When this equilibrium is compromised, mental illness arises, affecting not only individuals but also the wider community.

One in five people worldwide are living with mental health issues and this phenomenon is on the rise. Targeted by social stigma and discrimination, people affected by mental health issues don’t always look for help and treatment, delaying or impeding their recovery.

The cost to business and society is high, however, mental health is often neglected and underfunded. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that the economic impact of mental health issues to the global economy at US$1 trillion per year in lost productivity, a cost that could reach $16 trillion by 2030 if left unaddressed, according to the Lancet Commission. Such statistics hide a distressing number of struggling individuals and a staggering amount of associated costs for society and for global employers.

How Mental Health Issues Affect Organizations

What applies on a macroeconomic basis is true for individual organizations as well.

According to a new study, Workplace Well-being: A Summary of the 2018 Workplace Outcomes Suite Annual Report, employees who are struggling with some aspects of their health or well-being spend more than one-third of their working time being unproductive. This level of reduced productivity is more than double that of the typical healthy employee. In addition, these employees are absent from work for an average of 7.36 hours per month — almost one full working day.

Promoting positive mental health is in the best interest of all organizations because supported employees perform better. Furthermore, organizations save in terms of less sick leave being taken and gain maximized productivity from these employees.

Nurturing positive mental health could also help to prevent physical illness as mental problems can weave themselves through all aspects of an individual's life. Furthermore, mental health issues can generate a knock-on effect on the wider workforce, as negative work relationships can lower employee morale and motivation.

The work environment needs a proactive approach to health and wellness. However, to be effective, these initiatives need to be tailored to different types of employees.

Expats at Greater Risk of Mental Health Issues

Organizations should pay particular attention to the most vulnerable workforce segments. While it's important to safeguard the well-being of all employees, expats are at greater risk of mental health problems as the absence of a network of family and friends on foreign soil can cause stress and anxiety. Dipped in a completely new environment, international hires and foreign assignees can feel overwhelmed by the challenges posed by life abroad. Lacking access to a social community and support, they often find themselves in a silent crisis.

While working abroad represents a rewarding experience and a career opportunity, integrating into a new culture, the isolation caused by a language barrier, as well as the strain of leaving behind or uprooting an entire family can prove extremely challenging and could potentially lead to a failed assignment, early repatriation, or talent loss.

Despite the problem being widespread, most expats do not acknowledge the mental health risks that the challenges of living abroad can exacerbate. According to a study by Aetna International, only 6% of expatriates expressed concern about mental health issues before moving abroad. However, the report highlights a rise in insurance claims related to mental illness, with 56% of expats reporting signs of anxiety and depression.

A Well-Rounded Approach to Support Expat Employees

Being an expat can be a lonely journey and loneliness can easily turn into depression. Joining an expat community can help global employees to settle in abroad.

According to the Expat Insider 2019 Business Edition, the lack of a personal support network and socializing opportunities are the two key reasons contributing to the unhappiness of foreign assignees, international hires, and their families. The report, based on results from the InterNations Expat Insider — one of the world’s largest and most comprehensive surveys on expat life abroad — also highlights the importance of supporting relocating spouses, as their successful or failed integration in the new home country can make or break a foreign assignment or international placement.

Relocating spouses are particularly prone to loneliness. With 57% of relocating partners not working, despite 87% of those that participated in the survey being highly educated, they often struggle to find a sense of purpose in their new home country, which increases their stress levels and causes a knock-on effect on their family. Preventing loneliness by fostering social integration can help achieve successful foreign assignments and the retention of international hires.

“While practical support — such as relocation assistance, and visa and tax support — might be more valuable in the initial stages of attracting international hires, it is the personal aspects — such as social integration assistance — that will facilitate the retention of talent, and support international hires to be happy and productive in the workplace,” commented Jovana Vranic, HR Manager Technical Recruiting at XING SE, in a recent Ask the Expert interview.

According to Finaccord, there are over 66.2 million expats worldwide, a figure set to reach 87.5 million by 2021, representing a sizable chunk of the global population and workforce. It is, therefore, crucial that organizations prioritize the well-being of their workforces, particularly of foreign assignees and international hires.

“Supporting the health and well-being of employees is still not as much of a focus for organizations as it needs to be, and there often seems to be a lack of creativity in coming up with initiatives to foster healthy workplaces. I think most employers are yet to tap into the true potential of peer-to-peer support to promote the health and well-being of their employees. Such innovative types of support should be a strong consideration for employers, as they play to the strengths and interests of employees and empower them to connect and support one another in a sustainable and cost-efficient way,” explained Dominic Niebler, a Startup Consultant at BARMER, in a recent article.

Taking all of this into account, is it not time to realize that the well-being of expat employees is crucial to re-shape the future of global mobility?

World Health Organization. 2001. Mental Health Affecting One in Four People.
Global Health Commission - The Lancet. 2018. The Lancet Commission on Mental Health and Sustainable Development.
LifeWorks. 2018. Workplace Well-being: A Summary of the 2018 Workplace Outcomes Suite Annual Report.
Aetna International. 2017. Expatriate Mental Health, Breaking the Silence and Ending the Stigma.
Finnacord. 2018. Global Expatriates: Size, Segmentation and Forecast for the Worldwide Market.