Moving abroad is sure to be an exciting time, with hours – if not days – spent planning, preparing and looking forward to the move. Settling into a new working and living environment will inevitably come with its challenges, though. Being separated from the support provided by family and friends back home can take a particular toll on expats’ health and wellbeing. To add to this, if an expat is moving with a family, their own wellbeing almost certainly won’t come first.
These pressures can ultimately leave some expats more vulnerable to experiencing poor mental health. In fact, according to a U.S study*, over 50 per cent of the expats sampled were at a higher risk of internalising problems such as anxiety and depression. As such, many expats could be leaving home unprepared for the impact that life abroad can have on their mental wellbeing.
Prevention is better than cure
Thinking ahead and helping expats to prepare for some of the challenges they will face is vital in promoting overall wellness. Some companies might consider pre-assignment checks to make sure both the prospective expat and the company are aware of any issues that may need to be addressed before the move – for example, where to get regular medication or whether an asthma sufferer would be comfortable living in China where the air quality can be poorer. There are also plenty of other pre-emptive steps that businesses could take though, to help expat employees settle in to their new surroundings quickly.
For example, in some cases, it may be possible for the expat to visit the location, explore the area and meet their new colleagues before starting their assignment. Other support might include language lessons before they go, so the expat can start to integrate as soon as they arrive. Helping them develop the right skills to communicate effectively will certainly help to ensure the start of their journey is a positive one.
Granted, learning a language isn’t always required, so think about the little things that will help new expats to acclimatise. Whilst this could include providing legal and political information, it’s important to remember what might help them lead a healthy lifestyle. For example, why not let them know about the local cuisine and diet, or the best places to explore on foot. This information will not only ensure they get the most out of the experience, but it will prevent them from feeling overwhelmed and isolated. The more information, the better. In some cases, where the organisation already has people in the region, it may even be possible to assign a “buddy” to help the expat settle in.
Check-in before they check out
In some countries and cultures, mental health is not as recognised or freely discussed as in others. Therefore, it’s important to consider what support expats might have been used to back home, and what they might need going forward.
Once settled, make sure you’re regularly checking in with the employee to see how they’ve found the move and new environment. Make them aware early on that talking about their own mental wellbeing is important and accepted. Keep the door open and try to create a comfortable environment for them to be open and honest with you. This should help you spot any signs of mental ill health early on.
If your team member is in a country where there is limited awareness of the impact of mental health, make sure that both they and HR are able to recognise, for example, that physical symptoms such as neck and back pain, arrhythmias and rashes can all be indicative of stress.
Share any websites, blogs or apps that you think would help too. Pairing them up with a buddy will also help to ensure they are kept up to date with local events and community gatherings, so they can start to build their own network of support.
One size doesn’t fit all
What works for one employee may not work for another, especially if they’ve come from different backgrounds. Whilst there will be plenty of challenges that all expats face when on assignment, there will be some that are unique to the individual.
If you have budget available for health and wellness initiatives, you don’t necessarily have to take a single approach. Some businesses will offer a wellbeing allowance that employees can spend on an activity or hobby of their choice. Whether it be photography, cookery or a sporting activity, this can be a great way to encourage expats to remain active and to become better acquainted with their new home. Various studies have shown that taking part in sports or physical activities can be a particularly effective way of boosting mental wellbeing, as well as meeting new people, so HR should make sure to highlight the availability of initiatives such as these.
Communication and offering the right support for the individual are both key in ensuring the happiness of all expat colleagues. Undertaking such a big readjustment can take its toll on an employee’s wellbeing and it’s important to always remember that. But, by putting the right initiatives in place, leaders and HR managers can make sure they are giving their expat workforce the best experience whilst also getting the most out of them too.