A Series on Expat Depression #9: What role should our employers play?

So I am nearly at the end of my voyage through the sea of expat depression. It has certainly been an interesting exercise and actually very useful for me who has found writing these blog posts to be a very reflective process. I hope others have also found them helpful, or at least to have given them pause for thought about their own situation. Today, I look at an area that I haven’t seen much discussion on – that of the role of the employer. Do they have a responsibilty to our mental welfare? Should they? What do you think?

“I think companies who move people abroad should consider their employees’ and their families’ mental health situation and be encouraging and supportive” – “V”.

Sending someone abroad to do a job is a risky strategy. But how many employers ever think to screen their workers for mental health issues before they go, or to help them once they are there?

This was the question I posed in my survey on expat depression, curious to know whether people thought employers had a responsibility for their workers overseas – and if so, what they should be doing about it.

Anecdotally, I have heard of some companies or agencies making sure anyone they send abroad (including the partners and families of their employees) are mentally fit for the stress they are fairly likely to encounter when they get there. This could include anything from having to deal with a totally new working culture to the loneliness and isolation of a non-working partner.

But in reality, most people confirmed what I had already suspected – the majority of employers either don’t even think about depression or mental health issues as a potential problem, or they do nothing at all about it.

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First the good news

“Our organisation (a church) had been sending missionaries overseas for over 100 years by the time we went overseas with them. They tried to screen for it before agreeing to send people overseas, provided a wide variety of support while you were overseas and would spend the money to send you home if you really needed help…” Missionary Kid.

It’s not all doom and gloom though. There were sporadic reports of attempts to help both employers and partners/families. One person said their employer was very aware of depression and that they could have accessed professional help through them. Another that her partner worked at a university where they had “monthly workshops for spouses”.  And Robyn told me:

“The HR manager in one location certainly attempted to stay in contact with workers and their spouses on a regular basis and tried to help with …problems related to settling in and certainly made herself available to help if any other problems arose during our stay….”

As mentioned above, I have heard reports of employers carrying out psychological screening of not just their employer but also their family before deciding where to send them (or sending them anywhere at all). This might seem like taking things a little too far until you consider how many people probably are unsuited to certain destinations. Although I would prefer to see proper support in place for everyone rather than stop people going “just in case”.

But more realistically…

Despite the isolated reports of caring employers most said this wasn’t something they had come across. Of course there was often “awareness” of the issue – as one person put it, they “must be aware as there as so many”. But awareness doesn’t always mean anything is actually done about it.

Not everyone thought the employers necessarily had a responsibility to their employees in this area – one saying “we put out hands up for the move and we were aware of the challenges we would face”. But the vast majority believed that not only was it “nice when they did”, but that it also made business sense for them to do so.

“I do think it is in their best interest to offer resources. It’s expensive to move families overseas. A failed assignment is more costly than counselling resources”.  Mary.

Unfortunately it seems many (most?) employers still have not understood the importance of making sure not only the person who is working for them is happy but their partner and family is as well. As Alison put it:

“I don’t think the employer does much to tackle the problems a trailing spouse might have. They just throw a huge chunk of money at you hoping that’s enough to entice you to go…and then you are on your own. I guess they feel that if they’re paying you so much more (in extra benefits and stipends) that it’s up to you to seek your own help”.

Which is a good point – even if an employer is aware of the issue, what can they actually do to help? Isn’t it better to leave things to the professionals?

How can they help?

Suggestions for what people thought their employers could do to help them ranged from the very simple – “even just asking after me a bit would have made me feel less irrelevant” (I will back her on this one!!), to the more ambitious eg “offering the benefit of some therapy sessions for their employee and/or partner”. Others said just having the employer be more open and communicative on the subject would help – I wonder how many people are briefed on this issue before they leave home? But practical help was also suggested – like this from Mary:

“Simple things that don’t cost a lot like a phone list would help, sponsoring a coffee morning every six months, info on working with the local internet and phones would be a great help. Providing several hours of translation services to spouses every 2-3 weeks after arrival to ask questions of local shopkeepers, apartment staff or tech service people would be a godsend”.

I might add to that list – wouldn’t it be great if every employer provided a copy of my book to anyone taking their partner overseas?

What do you think – is it the responsibility of a global employer to care about the mental health of their workforce? What can they – or should they – do to help? Have you got any stories, good or bad?

Picture credit: Jlhopgood

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7 thoughts on “A Series on Expat Depression #9: What role should our employers play?

  1. I suppose it probably depends on the destination a bit, people sent to an extremely remote or difficult posting should potentially get help from the employer as it could be difficult to find on their own. Otherwise, it’s hard to say how much responsibility the employer should have for mental health and meet ups.

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    • It is hard as in some cases life may seem like it won’t be that different from “back home”. However in my experience sometimes the places that you might think would be the easiest actually end up as the hardest because you are left to your own devices. Whereas some of the so-called hardship posts are often the ones people enjoy more because you get more support, there is more of a community feel and colleagues and their families pull together. So called first world countries can also be harder because from the outside they LOOK easier, eg people speak the same language, there are good shops etc. But some of the most miserable expats I have met were Brits in the States or Australians in New Zealand because they didn’t think they would have any problems settling in. Definitely all food for thought.

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  2. The best support I’ve seen is offering housing i.e. You don’t get to choose your home you just have to live in this house. You can always get help with paperwork etc but I haven’t seen a single company worrying about the well being of their employees or their families. Management assumes that you accepted this assignment so YOU are responsible for your choice and given your generous pay you shouldn’t be complaining! I noticed that once we began complaining about the living conditions or the health system, the management at my husband’s company not only ignored our complaints but also stopped the socializing (no more going out for drinks or dinners…). It’s probably easier to ignore someone’s grievances if you’re no longer friendly. Plus dinner conversations can get really awkward!
    This is a very short sighted way of management but unfortunately very widespread. BTW, have you read this?
    https://hbr.org/2011/09/case-study-the-expat-dilemma

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    • Thanks for sharing Jana, what a. Interesting article! And oh that all employers were like that! In my world we spouses are barely acknowledged let alone given an assistance. It makes me mad just thinking about it actually. And it sounds like you have the same thing. It’s easier for them to ignore you than try to help you.

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  3. Pingback: A series on expat depression: round-up |

  4. I do agree that employers shouldn’t just ignore the problems that new employees might have with relocating. Even if it’s just organising housing for the first months or accepting and agreeing to the varying emotions of people after relocation it’s already a huge support. Even better if people wouldn’t be formally evaluated within the first couple of months not to add up to the whole stress – just day to day communication about the day to day activities is enough. Baby steps. Although that might probably be impossible due to internal policies of many big companies…

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