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Leadership Out-of-country assignments fail when employees are bowled over by the mental strain

Jason McCormick is head of Sales and Services, Canada, at Aetna International

In today’s interconnected world, it’s not unusual to have colleagues who live around the globe, as opposed to just across the office. In fact, 2.8 million Canadians actively pursue expat assignments as a chance to travel and experience a new culture first-hand.

It’s certainly a rewarding experience. But talk to almost anyone who’s done it, and they’ll tell you one thing: It’s challenging. In fact, according to INSEAD, up to 40 per cent of expat assignments fail. Why? Many employees report feeling stress, culture shock, homesickness and social isolation. Coupled with a lack of support from family and friends, these can quickly evolve into serious mental-health concerns.

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With more Canadian employees working abroad than ever before, it’s imperative that employers help expat workers acclimate to their new homes to ensure a successful assignment. Here are a few tips for getting started.

Be proactive

Preparing employees for success abroad starts before they even leave. The first step is helping them get the lay of the land of their future home. No matter where employees are headed, there are a number of resources available, including destination guides that explore topics ranging from local culture and business etiquette to how to find a home.

The single best way to equip expat employees for success is by helping them understand the local health system. Expat employees need to know how the health-care system works in their new country, where their nearest approved medical centres are, and what to do in the case of an emergency.

But knowing where to go for help is only half of the equation; ensuring your employees have the right insurance coverage while abroad is the other half. Unfortunately, many employers mistakenly assume that an out-of-country benefit from their domestic plan is sufficient. It’s not. These policies only cover emergency care and may exclude pre-existing conditions. With one in four adults living with a mental-health condition, these exclusions could hinder employees from seeking treatment. It’s therefore essential that employers work with an insurance company to offer employees an international health plan that includes mental-health services.

Be available

Once on the ground, expats not only have to adjust to a new work environment but grasp a new culture and (potentially) a new language. For those travelling with a family, it can also mean enrolling kids in new schools and making new friends. Put simply, it doesn’t get easier upon arrival.

Understanding that it takes time to adjust when relocating and giving employees the resources they need to do so is important to supporting their mental and emotional health. One such tool for helping with their adjustment is an Employee Assistance Program (EAP). These programs provide private assessments and services to help manage employees’ personal or work-related problems and can help identify stress points or emerging challenges before they escalate into a mental-health issue.

A second resource is Mental Health First Aid International. Over the past two decades, more than two million people across the world have completed the training, learning about the signs of emotional distress in the process. The course also offers immediate support for expats who might be in crisis – especially valuable for those in emerging markets where professional care might be harder to access.

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Third, in the event that employees need further assistance, connect them to a personalized resource. For instance, Aetna International’s In Touch Care program offers members personalized care support no matter where employees are by combining a nurse care manager with technological capabilities. Members receive individualized health-action plans, engaging members before major mental-health problems occur. Taken together, this combined support can help provide expat employees with the foundation they need to focus on adjusting to their new home.

Your employees abroad face unique obstacles. However, with the proper planning, open discussions about mental health and assistance finding care, an overseas assignment can be a life-changing experience.

What steps will you take to support your expat colleagues?

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