12 September 2017

Employers are overlooking the mental and emotional wellbeing of staff returning from overseas assignments

Relocating staff go through a lot of disruption preparing for, undertaking and returning from an overseas assignment. Each stage can have a significant impact on emotional and mental health for staff and their families. Towergate Health & Protection are urging employers to think just as much about caring for employees and their families whilst they are preparing for, and returning from, an overseas assignment, as they do when an employee first relocates for an assignment.

Employers are only supporting one stage of the relocation

Relocations require far more than just the physical journey from one country to another. In addition to the demands of adjusting to a new job, staff have to adapt to a new home, location and culture with all its customs and idiosyncrasies. Such a big change can create stress and anxiety and a wide range of emotions. Many employers recognise they need to offer some form of support but this has typically been focused on the period when staff first relocate. Support for employees who are preparing for a move, and those who are returning, is just as critical, and is often overlooked. Indeed, recent research from the Canadian Employee Relocation Council (CERC) found that only 30%* of organisations currently provide repatriation support. 

Thinking holistically about wellbeing supports productivity at every stage

It is in everyone’s interests that staff settle well in a new location and become productive as quickly as possible. It is just as important during the time before a move and when staff return that staff are supported and remain productive. Furthermore, looking after employees should be more than just ensuring their physical health is protected. For all parties to get the most from international assignments it is essential that employers think holistically about the mental and emotional, as well as the physical health, at each stage.

What can employers do?

When an employee accepts an overseas post, they may experience a wide range of emotions from initial elation or anxiety, to a ‘honeymoon’ stage where everything seems perfect, to possible disillusionment which can result in anger. Once they relocate they may feel an initial culture shock before they adjust to the host culture. Returning home can be just as stressful and challenging as the initial move and they may feel more anxiety as they reintegrate.

Employers should support all stages and also look at preventative measures they can deploy to avoid such issues. Preventative measures may include providing counselling and encouraging participation in local support networks or putting staff in touch with others who have had experience of international relocation.

Considering families

Families and dependants of an employee may also go through similar emotions. Dealing with family issues is one of the most common challenges for employees who relocate for work. It is critical that employers consider the impact on families of any relocation, and offer them the same support as their staff at every stage. 

Sarah Dennis, head of international said: ‘In our experience, staff want to feel supported as they undertake all the challenges associated with an assignment overseas. Being able to access support 24/7, via experienced expats who understand first-hand the experience of overseas staff, makes a real difference. When staff return, their care can’t stop, reintegration has traditionally been given little thought but it’s key and can be a surprisingly problematic time. Support is available, including specialist employee assistance programmes, and we would urge employers to investigate relevant options.’

It’s important that employees, especially those prepared to make the sacrifices needed to relocate, feel they are being cared for. With the distances involved with working overseas, employee engagement is more difficult. Promoting both preventative measures and putting support in place to help them at every stage demonstrates a company’s care toward its staff and plays an integral role in increasing employee engagement.

* https://c.ymcdn.com/sites/www.cerc.ca/resource/resmgr/careers/2017_Relocation_policy_surve.pdf