The challenges of working in a different country, away from what is familiar and comfortable can bring increased stress affecting both wellbeing and the psychological health of employees, particularly for those with pre-existing psychological issues.
But there is much that can be done to mitigate the difficulties found working in new cultures with careful preparation before employees are posted, continued support during the placement and attention after they have returned home.
Psychological issues can become unearthed in workers even with no previous history of mental health issues. For those undertaking regular short business trips abroad, the sleep deprivation associated with catching frequent early flights and changing time zones is well known to cause conditions from anxiety to depression. But it is those on long postings abroad where cultural differences are more defined that require careful planning and consideration.
HR departments should invite employees to reflect deeply about the logistical considerations of moving to another country, understanding the ramifications for themselves and their families as well as identifying any medical issues that would be difficult or impossible to treat adequately during the posting abroad.
For those with a history of psychological issues it is particularly important to evaluate whether it is wise to move away from friends – a vital support network – and the employee’s regular counsellors or therapists. For these employees, seeking the advice of mental health professionals is a crucial first step when considering working away.
A formal medical clearance process should also be undertaken before an employee is posted abroad. And ideally this should be conducted by a specialist assistance company with medical reports enabling the suitability of the posting and the employee to be assessed. If the match between post and employee is acceptable, HR can then begin to prepare the worker further for their time away.
Education programmes can be held to inform the employee ofwhat to expect. The psychological processes involved with encountering a foreign culture are experienced by all to varying extents. Preparatory training should, ideally, also include language studies, if appropriate, cultural awareness, stress coping strategies and resilience training. The precise composition of the preparation course should be tailored to the role and posting that the worker will undertake aided with a comprehensive presentation following advice from an employee from the actual posting overseas.
Regular contact between HR and the employee during the posting is likely to prove beneficial. This should not only be concerning work related issues but also include life outside of work if possible.
If stress, anxiety, sleep problems, or depression occur in the worker or their family, it is best addressed early on before problems can escalate.
However, in some countries, providing local support can be complicated. If personnel perform sensitive roles there can be difficulty with their being completely frank to an unknown local therapist. Moreover, as some cities necessitate an armed escort to accompany the worker outside of the compound, the opportunity of going unobserved to a psychologist’s appointment may be more limited. In this situation, phone or internet-based consultations with UK or US therapists could be the answer.
For those who have been abroad for a significant time, there may well be some transition needed to life back in the home country, once returned. It is tempting to expect that all will be well once ensconced at home, but a reverse- culture shock can be experienced in up to 80 per cent of returned employees. The role of the HR team is, therefore, crucial to provide hands-on support and referral to experts if re-acclimatisation proves difficult for individuals.
Working overseas can bring the employee considerable rewards, but also present significant challenges. However, with effective HR intervention, employees can not only be prepared for the difficulties that may occur, but also be supported should troubles arise. And brokers and intermediaries can provide employers with access to a range of solutions to help with the process.