Are your expat employees at risk of mental illness?

A recent study shows a sharp rise in mental health claims among expats – one doctor explains what HR can do to help

Are your expat employees at risk of mental illness?

Settling overseas is no easy task and organizations often put measures in place to support their expat staff – however, it seems those efforts might not be enough after a new study pointed to a sharp increase in mental health issues among employees who’ve relocated.

Published by Aetna International, the study – Expatriate Mental Health: Breaking the Silence and Ending the Stigma – found that there was an average increase of 28 per cent in expat mental health claims in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, the Americas and Southeast Asia from 2014-16.

Europe saw the highest increase at 33 per cent, followed the Middle East and North Africa at 28 per cent, then the Americas at 26 per cent and finally Southeast Asia at 19 per cent.

Dr. Mitesh Patel is the medical director at Aetna International – he told HRD that while the increase might appear worrying on the surface, it’s actually a positive sign.

“It’s a mixture of us encouraging treatment claims, and mental health issues being more widely accepted, compared with five or 10 years ago,” he explained. “Everyone knows someone who has or has had mental health issues so admitting to having an issue and seeking treatment is becoming more and more acceptable.”

Patel also said many employers are becoming more aware of the issue and increasingly supportive – something which in turn helps change perceptions. However, he warned that there is still plenty of room for improvement.

“For organizations sending employees on international assignments, they should have a robust screening, pre-trip planning and orientation process in place to make sure employees are suited to – and geared up for – the challenges ahead,” he told HRD.

“Stepping off the plane to start a new international assignment should not be the employee’s first exposure to the new culture and environment,” he added. “A short trial run might be preferable to a failed assignment three months’ down the line.”

Philadelphia-based Patel says one of the key obstacles for organizations is the fiercely-independent nature of many expats and the common mentality that they can make things work on their own.

“There are natural reactions to the challenges that moving abroad can bring but, expats like to think of themselves as being self-reliant,” explains Patel. “They don’t like to be a burden on anyone, which can exacerbate mental health conditions.”

Patel says organizations could proactively support their employees by putting them in touch with an expat community or an independent counsellor who can help them through any problems.

Other key stressors for expats include a lack of friends, not integrating into the culture, being isolated through a language barrier, in conjunction with increased responsibility or new responsibilities at work.

“Build in mental health benefits as standard to any private medical insurance plan and consider gym or social club memberships for employees, as well as access to employee assistance programmes,” advised Patel.

For expat employees who are relocating with a spouse or their children, Patel said employers should consider extending support to the entire family.

“Families often have greater responsibilities and long-term considerations, which are stress promotors,” he told HRD. “For example, considering how the children will settle in, adapt to the move, and finding appropriate schools for the children.

“There will also be concerns around a spouse who might need support finding a job or a social circle, particularly if the employee is working long hours to adjust to a new role. Many move abroad for a better quality of life, so providing support will help them achieve that and ultimately help the assignment succeed.”

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