08 July 2020

Ensure international employees know mental health support is available, especially in countries where the subject remains taboo

Businesses need to provide mental health support to international staff and communicate its availability - particularly in wake of the pandemic and in countries where the topic remains taboo - advises Towergate Health & Protection.

Sarah Dennis, Head of International at Towergate Health & Protection said: “Mental health isn’t recognised as an illness in every country, and it can be considered taboo, so businesses need to be mindful of how they position support services if they want to encourage take-up. Staff may have faced untold pressures because of Covid-19, experiencing lockdowns and flight restrictions, and their mental health may have been negatively impacted as a result. Letting staff know that confidential support is available can be a lifeline during this challenging time.”

Cultural differences

Businesses operating within UAE, India, the Far East and Africa can struggle to implement mental wellbeing strategies, or get staff engagement, due to the stigma attached to associated illnesses. For example, in the Arab Youth Survey, despite nearly one in three (31%) saying they know someone with a mental health issue, 54% said accessing quality care is difficult in their country and 50% said there is a stigma to seeking medical support.1 Businesses need to be aware of the differences in attitudes towards mental health and tailor communications to staff accordingly. Even repositioning services as supporting ‘wellbeing’, as opposed to supporting ‘mental health’, can make all the difference to employee uptake.

Increased risk of substance abuse and physical ill-health

Mental health issues can affect physical health and vice versa; yet even in high-income countries, nearly 50% of those with depression do not get treatment.2 Depression can increase the risk of diseases such as diabetes and heart disease, and also the likelihood of substance addiction - to nicotine and alcohol for example. The same can also be said in reverse, meaning that people with aforementioned and other health conditions are at higher risk of mental ill-health.2 Making support available, such as mental health apps that teach users coping mechanisms for stressful situations, or smoking cessation programmes, can empower staff to take control of both their physical and mental wellbeing. 

Accessing confidential mental health support

With the pandemic potentially triggering new or existing mental health conditions, providing staff with an outlet to discuss their issues, anxieties and stresses, can make a significant difference to their mental wellbeing. It’s important to offer access to professional support from people that have experience of working abroad, such as through a global employee assistance programme (EAP), so international staff and their dependants can get help with any mental health issues they may have, helping them to navigate a challenging time.

Sarah Dennis concludes: “Businesses can do more to support the wider wellbeing of international staff - particularly during the pandemic - by providing support for mental health. It’s particularly important that organisations understand how mental health is viewed in the different countries their staff work in, so they can tailor communications accordingly, such as repositioning how its promoted and emphasising the confidentiality.”


1. https://arabyouthsurvey.com/media-center/category/press-releases/ 
2. https://www.who.int/news-room/detail/30-03-2017--depression-let-s-talk-says-who-as-depression-tops-list-of-causes-of-ill-health