Heads together for wellness

International work assignments can be enjoyable, but also be a significant cause of stress for employees and their families – stress that is likely to increase as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak. It’s never been more important for businesses to include a robust approach to wellness in their duty-of-care policies, says Rob Fletcher, co-founder of Heart Relocation

Most organisations have well-defined duty-of-care policies, driven by their government’s legislation – and rightly so. But, it appears that while most of these policies talk about health, safety and wellbeing, the main thrust of them is around the physical security and health of the assignee and their families.

The outbreak of COVID-19 has put health and duty of care in sharp focus. Although the number of fatalities reported is horrific, [369,627 according to John Hopkins University on 31 May 20], compared with other risks – even common influenza, which the World Health Organization has determined kills between 250,000 to 500,000 people each year – it remains only a small percentage of the average number of deaths globally each year. We should remember that there are, on average globally, 1.75 million fatalities a year as a result of road traffic accidents – and there are no moves to ban us from travelling in cars.

A lot of statistics are now becoming available about the rise in divorces, domestic abuse and mental health problems arising because of the various lockdowns around the world. There is increasing evidence that post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSS) could become an issue for people who have been locked down. One of the first studies after the lockdown in Wuhan was conducted by Weizhi Liu, PhD, MD*, from the faculty of
psychology and mental health, Naval Medical University, Shanghai, China. He found that the prevalence of PTSS in the study population was 4.6%; specifically, 5.2% in the low-risk general population, 18.4% in the high-risk general population, and 4.4% in healthcare workers.

Media coverage has given this a global focus, which has driven a thorough review of process and procedure within organisations to protect their employees from harm.

This is important given some of the statistics we see about challenges foreign nationals face while working overseas. According to the ILO (International Labour Organisation), a UN agency based in Geneva, work is a dangerous place to be with a recorded 2.8 million deaths (2019). Working on an assumption that 10 per cent of all workers globally are working in a country different from their birth, we could estimate 280,000 of these could be expats. The ILO states for every work-related death there are an additional 374 million work-related injuries or illnesses..

The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work estimates that work-related ill-health and injury costs the European Union 3.3% of its GDP every year, which equates to €476bn (£435bn).

Of course, not all of these are assignment related, but, to put it in context, the top five most dangerous locations (based on 2016 data from the ILO) – some of which are assignment ‘hot spots’ – by total number of deaths as a proportion of labour force, are:

CountryDeaths per 100,000 workers
Solomon Islands24

Statistically, the safest locations to work are:

CountryDeaths per 100,000 workers
United Kingdom0.84
The Netherlands1.47

These headline numbers drive best practice to ensure employees are protected and kept from becoming one of these statistics. But they don’t really tell the whole story; work-related stress costs business millions of dollars each year in lost time and can create environments where employees feel there is no other escape than ending their assignment early, or worse.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gives the following advice on its website: ‘International travel can be fun, but it also can be stressful. Travel can spark mood changes, depression, anxiety, and uncharacteristic behaviours, such as violence, suicidal thoughts, and excessive drug and alcohol use, or it can worsen symptoms in people with existing mental illness. Anticipating the possible stresses of travel can help you cope with some of the thoughts and feelings that you may have before, during or after your trip.’

Rob Fletcher and staff at Heart Relocation on a team-building exercise

The question, however, is how do companies take care of the assignee and their family from a mental health perspective during an assignment? Wellness is certainly a buzzword in HR circles right now, and it is clear that employees are attracted to companies that have a focus on employee wellbeing and care.

However, research commissioned by Heart Relocation – undertaken with a number of assignees and their families, from a range of companies – indicates that going on assignment can affect both the assignee and their family significantly, with 100 per cent of our respondents indicating that work and home life are more stressful as an assignee compared with when they were at their home location. The level of stress is significant, and more than 60 per cent of respondents indicated that they felt the increased stress was having a detrimental effect on work and, more worryingly, on home.

What’s more, events or combinations of events that occur during the assignment can trigger these stress events and lead to significant mental health issues, including isolation and loneliness – and even, in one case, suicide ideation.

So, do organisations contribute to this? Sadly, the evidence is that they are unwittingly contributing to the stress levels. All of our respondents felt the package of support provided by their company fell short of what they felt they needed. To be clear, this was not a direct criticism of policy, but more about the types of support they felt they wanted. In particular, the level – or, more often, lack – of support for the accompanying family, beyond the needs of the assignee, was a frequent cause of stress.

Assignees reported that they felt the wider work family/network and the support it gave them did not extend to their family, and actually contributed to increased stress at home. It is notable that assignees from companies that had put in place programmes to integrate assignee families within the wider work environment – hosting accompanying family events at the office, for example – did not respond as negatively as those that had not.

Interestingly, relocation service providers did not come out of our research without criticism; 75 per cent of respondents stated that their provider often contributed to their stress levels by giving incorrect information and, more worryingly, 40 per cent said they failed to communicate proactively, or even at all, throughout the process.

Wellness is more than just a tagline; it is something that should permeate every aspect of an employee’s work life – and never more so than when work adds additional, significant stress factors, such as sending them on assignment.

Wellness might be the on-trend topic right now, often driven by a desire to demonstrate employee engagement, but wellbeing is a fundamental tenet of the human condition, and organisations should do more than pay lip service with a few lines of policy.

We should strive to weave this into every aspect of work – especially in mobility, which has demonstrated its ability to create significant additional stress factors.

* https://www.psychiatryadvisor.com/home/topics/anxiety/ptsd-trauma-and-stressor-related/in-china-covid-19-outbreak-leads-to-posttraumatic-stress-symptoms/

Rob Fletcher is Co-Founder of Heart Relocation and has a career in mobility going back more than 30 years. Having worked for some of the biggest names in relocation, enabling mobility teams around the world to build and deliver global policies, he is one of the most experienced mobility professionals in the industry.

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