Employers need to be mindful of the significant differences globally in how mental health is viewed and treated, when it comes to managing an international workforce. Disparities in both attitudes to, and treatment of, mental ill-health could make the difference between an international post succeeding or failing, if not understood and managed effectively.

It is estimated that 300 million people suffer from depression worldwide and 260 million have anxiety disorders.* But in low- and middle-income countries (such as many countries throughout Sub-Saharan Africa **), between 76% and 85% of people with mental disorders receive no treatment for a mental health disorder – resulting in many suffering alone.*** In high-income countries (such as the United States), between 35% and 50% of people with mental disorders are in the same situation.

Mental health is an issue that affects employers, as The World Health Organisation estimates it costs business $1 trillion a year in lost productivity. It’s therefore within the interest of businesses to ensure that provisions are in place to support mental health and in turn boost productivity.

However, the culture of different countries can mean that mental ill-health is considered taboo and therefore not supported. Similarly, a long-hours culture can exacerbate mental health concerns, with research highlighting a correlation between extra-long working hours (55 hours and above) and a heightened risk of depression.**** In the UK, a standard working week is understood as 35-40 hours, yet eight in ten countries in the Middle East, for example, permit weekly working hours in excess of 60 hours – creating an extra-long working hours culture.***** Employers with staff abroad need to be mindful of the pressure this can place on employees, and offer support where possible.

There are a number of solutions available to provide staff with support, including offering a global employee assistance programme (EAP). This allows staff to potentially access a range of services 24/7 – including financial, legal and emotional support – to help them through difficult times, wherever they are based in the world. Employees are also able to talk to an adviser that has had an expat experience, of being in the same country and working long hours, and therefore provide advice on how to better manage their current situation. So, if mental ill-health is generally not discussed in the country the employee is in, they still have a confidential outlet for support if needed.

Sarah Dennis, head of international for The Health Insurance Group said:

“Countries around the world approach mental health very differently. Some actively encourage open and honest dialogue about mental health, to provide support where possible, and others view the subject as off-limits. But it’s clear that mental ill-health affects many of us, so providing support – that is confidential – can make the difference between an employee feeling able to continue an international post or not.”

The most crucial thing for businesses is to get the top team on board with understanding the value of maintaining good mental health. Information regarding where employees can access further mental health support is then disseminated more effectively, helping employees to not feel so alone if they are struggling. Understanding the financial benefits of supporting mental health is often the first incentive to gain senior buy-in, and the second is seeing the positive impact robust solutions can have on individual wellbeing and overall employee brand.

* http://fortune.com/2017/10/10/world-mental-health-day-2017-workplace-depression-anxiety/

** https://datahelpdesk.worldbank.org/knowledgebase/articles/906519-world-bank-country-and-lending-groups

*** https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/mental-disorders

**** https://www.bmj.com/company/newsroom/long-working-hours-linked-to-heightened-depression-risk-in-women/

***** http://www.bbc.com/capital/story/20180504-which-country-works-the-longest-hours