World Suicide Prevention Day, 10 September

The first few weeks following a posting abroad may be recognised as a highly stressful time, but it’s important that employers understand that all stages of an overseas assignment can have specific challenges, says Towergate Health & Protection. Before a posting, on initial arrival, after a few months – or even years, and on return to the UK – all have specific challenges and can take their toll on mental health, and it’s important that employers offer support throughout.

Undergoing change: mental health of employees abroad at risk

World Suicide Prevention Day is an opportunity to highlight the importance of mental health in the workplace and the role of supporting those potentially at risk. Evidence shows that people’s jobs are the single biggest cause of stress and it’s especially important that potentially vulnerable times that overseas employees go through are recognised and supported.

Support upon arrival

Businesses need to prepare and educate an employee located in a new territory about the region they will be working from and not assume they will have prior knowledge about local conditions or cultural norms. This shift for a worker, compounded by workload stress and the shock of transitioning into a new culture may cause some employees to feel anxious or overwhelmed. As well as preparing itineraries and training, it’s a good idea for employers to put in place a stress-management policy and system of support for workers in a new country.

Frequent check-ins

An area that can often be overlooked when employees are stationed abroad is communication once they’ve settled in, and this can help to ensure their continued wellbeing. Everyone is susceptible to feeling stressed, frightened or low, and an individual can be thriving at work but still suffer from mental health problems. For this reason, employees positioned overseas experiencing a mental health issue can go unnoticed, so it’s important that consideration is given to regular monitoring before a crisis occurs.

Returning home

It is also critical to support mental health when an employee returns home after secondment abroad. It can be a shock re-adjusting to a different pace of work, work-life balance or culture. Employers need to be mindful of indicators that an individual may be having mental health problems, such as changes in usual behaviour. Employers can promote positive wellbeing by creating a supportive environment to help identify individuals that could be at risk as they adjust back home, including talking openly about mental health.

Mental health challenges around the globe

Finding a suitable balance between work and daily living is a challenge that all workers can face. For instance, in Japan, suicide rates border on crisis level and an estimated five per cent of all suicides are company related. Here, work related suicide (“karojisatsu”) is treated as an urgent public health issue officially recognised under 2014 law, and the government is obliged to take responsibility for creating safer work environments. In contrast, Scandinavian countries, such as Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland display very high levels of happiness, and relatively low suicide rates. According to The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) How’s Life Survey, with flexible hours as the norm and only one per cent of employees working more than 50 hours per week, Sweden boasts a happy and efficient workforce. This flexible approach to working is one reason it has been ranked the best country in the world for work-life balance.

Embedding mental health provision

Employers owe a duty of care to their employees, and this responsibility includes risks to both physical and mental health. Support and psychological health services need to be extended to all workers, whether staff are domestic or sent to work in other jurisdictions. Issues that specifically challenge employees working remotely, such as transitioning into a new culture or long absences from home mean extra care needs to be taken in supporting an individual who may be facing mental health challenges.

It can be really helpful to provide access to support from someone that’s worked abroad:

  • who understands their experience and what they’re going through
  • can offer support for social, emotional and psychosocial elements of such a move
  • can offer support to their family

A global employee assistance programme (EAP) can provide such help, and can be a great way for employers to support the mental health of their staff abroad.

Sarah Dennis, Head of International at Towergate Health & Protection said: “Companies can play an important role in suicide prevention, and it’s essential that businesses identify good practice around workplace policies on mental health. Being aware of the potential challenging times for staff positioned internationally is the first step, and it’s crucial that support is offered throughout the duration of assignments. The provision of a Global EAP, which provides access to specialists that have worked in a foreign country and understand the problems first-hand, can be a great support for those overseas.”