Healthy mind, healthy body

Top tips for easing the psychological pressures of an overseas assignment

An overseas posting can bring with it exciting opportunities for employees. Sometimes, however, the experience can prove overwhelming and bewildering.

According to the World Health Organisation, expatriates and travellers often report experiencing feelings of isolation and anxiety. Separation from family and friends and the lack of familiar social support systems can often lead to increased levels of stress and, ultimately, to both physical and psychological problems.    

Willis Towers Watson Health & Benefits' team of international Occupational Health specialists reveal 10 steps you can take to improve the psychological wellbeing of staff you send abroad.

  1. Preparation for culture shock. Employees can sometimes harbour unrealistic expectations of a 1970s style ex-pat scene and may need a few truths hitting home before they disappear into an envisaged utopia of gin and tonic parties, luxury accommodation and private beach clubs.  They should be made aware of the cons as well as the pros of the new environment and be given clear advice on how previous colleagues have coped with such new challenges.

  2. Tap the wisdom of experience. Departing expats should be encouraged to take their replacements and their families to dinner armed with photo albums and an ability to talk about what it's like to actually live there, from finding your way around the public transport system and buying a loaf of bread to avoiding cultural faux pas.  

  3. Build acquaintances in advance. It is advisable to give staff plenty of opportunity to talk to the people they will be working with before they get there, either by phone or email, to establish some level of familiarity amongst the shock of the new.

  4. Keep in touch. Good communication with UK HQ is the cornerstone of any successful overseas posting.  In an ideal world, every employee sent overseas should be allocated their own UK business coach to ensure that regular contact is maintained and to avoid the problem of being out of touch and isolated in a far-flung post. At the very least, monthly contact with an HR or OH representative back home is essential.  Practical support, like giving your staff a web cam and access to free internet calls via Skype, can also help to alleviate the profound sense of alienation which can persist in the early days.

  5. All work and no play makes Jack an ill boy. Employees selected for an overseas placement can have a tendency to be globetrotting workaholics, prepared to work very long hours to fulfil company and career objectives. This may be commendable but work-life balance is an important component of long-term mental health so you might like to consider including such things health club membership as part of a relocation package. 

  6. Family first. It is said that it takes two years to get used to a new country. It certainly takes time and effort to put out the social tendrils and replace networks of friends and family back home. Any Occupational Health effort ignores the rest of the family at its peril. If a wife or husband loses career independence, it can quickly lead to problems of insecurity and depression, which could eventually jeopardise the placement, if the spouse demands a return home or a marriage breaks up. Wives may not be permitted to work in many Middle Eastern countries, but cultural adaptation for the growing number of male spouses without a clearly defined role may be even more problematic. 

  7. Access to counselling support can be key. Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) can reduce the emotional impact of an overseas posting and can enable employees struggling with a difficult transition to regain or maintain control of their lives. Solution focused brief therapy has been proven to be a highly effective and pragmatic approach, which focuses on what clients want to achieve, rather than on the problems that made them seek help in the first place.

  8. Verify fitness to travel before staff pick up their passport. An in-depth pre-travel a psychological assessment can flag up any potential stress points in advance and help predict how an employee will adapt and get on with colleagues in their new location. Similarly, a wider medical healthcheck will identify and address any potential medical problems before they go, giving employees reassurance and peace of mind before they go and preventing crises later on.

  9. Forewarned is psychologically forearmed. Before your employees head to the other side of the planet, they should be given health advice on vaccinations and anti-malarials. Before your employees travel they should also cover an in-depth introduction to the risks of local diseases and ailments and how to avoid them.

  10. Homeward bound. Readjusting to the home culture after a long spell overseas and picking up a new professional role can prove to be just as stressful as the initial secondment. Research has found that, on average, 15 per cent of international assignees resign within 12 months of completing their posting due to lack of proper preparation for repatriation. Employers should make the effort to welcome them back to the UK and a medical review and personal debrief for the whole family can also prove vital during this difficult time, particularly for younger family members who may feel uprooted and disenfranchised.

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