19 October 2021

Pandemic shines light on stark contrast in health care for employers with overseas staff

Covid has shone a harsh spotlight on the global inequalities of health care. Employers with staff in overseas positions are seeing a stark contrast in the care individuals may receive if left to the health system of their host nation.

While this may sometimes be very high-quality care, it may also come at a very high cost. In other areas, staff will not receive the level of care they would expect at home. This is making many employers see that they must ensure their staff are supported and provided with adequate care, and that the costs are fully covered.

Global disparity statistics

The World Health Organisation’s (WHO’s) World Health Statistics Report 20211 shows that healthy life expectancy at birth in the United Kingdom is 70.1 years. This compares to 63.7 years globally. Japan has the highest healthy life expectancy at 74.1 years, with Lesotho being the lowest at just 44.2 years.

Irrespective of the pandemic, global health care inequalities are rooted among social, political, economic and gender inequalities and there are stark differences in the spending on health care around the world. Deloitte’s 2021 Global Health Care Outlook report2 shows that by 2024, at one end of the scale, the USA is likely to spend US$12,703 per capita on health while, at the other end of the scale, Pakistan is likely to spend just US$37 per capita.

Uniting employees

The disparities in health care around the world can contribute to overseas employees feeling isolated and undervalued. A robust health and wellbeing programme can, however, help to connect a disparate workforce around the globe, with physical and mental support stretching far beyond the boundaries of each country, so it’s vital that employers put such support in place.

Virtual support

The rise in online support throughout the Covid pandemic means that it is now even easier and more commonplace for help to be made available through virtual services, and this is something that employers must consider. Whether this is online GP appointments, virtual physio, or video counselling, it means that support can be made available anywhere in the world with internet provision.

Indeed, figures from Statista show that the global digital health market was worth an estimated US$175billion prior to the pandemic in 2019. This is expected to reach nearly US$660billion by 20253, so it’s a trend employers need to incorporate.

Sarah Dennis, Head of International at Towergate Health & Protection, says: “Employers of overseas staff must embrace the growth and development in digital health. It is a major opportunity to provide better health care in isolated parts of the world and to introduce a level of consistency and equality across their provision.”

The importance of wellbeing

Reported in the Deloitte findings2, Dutch experts believe that the focus is shifting from health care to health and wellbeing. There will be greater focus on healthy lifestyles, vitality, and wellness, on prevention and early diagnosis. This is a movement that many HR and employee benefits professionals have been promoting for some time.

Employers should ensure that the health and wellbeing policy they put in place is wide-ranging. There are lifestyle considerations to be made according to the countries in which employees are working. Where Australia, for example is attuned to work-life balance and has an active, outdoors lifestyle, in other countries this routine is less likely. Wider support should therefore be included - such as guidance on nutrition and exercise – to support employees in every country.

Cultural differences and mental health

Sarah Dennis comments: “In some countries they just don’t talk about mental health issues. This does not mean, however, that employees there don’t have mental health problems, and they may well need more support than those in countries where mental health is openly discussed.”

With cultural differences and stigma still attached to mental health conditions in many countries it is important for employers to investigate options for mental health support and to access specialists who have experience abroad themselves. Mental health support for overseas employees may include global employee assistance programmes (EAPs), counselling, and support hotlines. Many of which are open to the employees’ families too.

Sarah Dennis concludes: “The pandemic has brought challenging times across the world but there is now an opportunity to use this to unite employees. Health and wellbeing has been pushed high up the agenda and it is up to employers to now ensure it stays there. Understanding global differences in approaches and ensuring there is adequate support for staff around the world is a good starting point.”


1. World Health Statistics (who.int)
2. 2021 Global health care sector outlook | Deloitte
3. Global digital health market forecast 2025 | Statista