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Employee mental health: How to support international workers

The most valuable asset a company has is its employees. Therefore, ensuring worker well-being is critical for every organisation. Healthy employees not only enjoy greater quality of life, they also benefit their employers through: 

  • Reduced absenteeism
  • Increased productivity
  • Improved morale
  • Higher retention rates

There are many factors that influence employee well-being, ranging from workplace environment to job satisfaction, physical health, and more. If your company has employees in multiple locations worldwide, the relationship between workplace environment and wellness is especially relevant. 

Even though working abroad is usually one of the most eye-opening and gratifying professional experiences, recent studies show that people who do so may be at greater risk of mental health problems. Aside from the usual work-related stress, expatriates also face the following challenges: culture shock, language barriers, separation from family and friends, and complicated foreign bureaucracy. 

What can you as an employer do to help your team members navigate these difficulties? Foremost, you can familiarize yourself with the above-mentioned causes of expat depression. Secondly, you can be proactive in fostering employee well-being. In this article we’ll provide an overview of the hurdles expat workers have to overcome and outline some of the things your company can do to support those working abroad.

The challenges workers face when living abroad

1. Culture shock

The process of adjusting to a new country and culture can be difficult. In most cases, it’s to be expected. Cultural adjustment, commonly referred to as “culture shock”, is the mental and emotional response that occurs when separated from everything you’re familiar with. This might include language, law, religion, cuisine, and more. The severity of culture shock varies from person to person, and sometimes it’s almost imperceptible. In more pronounced cases, people can begin to question their values and identity. An experience like this could have far-reaching consequences for the well-being of employees, as well as their work performance. 

Before employees embark to new locations, you can help them prepare for the upcoming adjustment in several ways. For example, encourage them to do research ahead of time. There are a lot of great international business resources online that explain the cultures and customs of countries around the world.

Unfortunately, all the preparation in the world might not make a difference. It’s impossible to accurately predict whether or not someone will experience culture shock. To that end, it’s wise to educate yourself and your employees about the common symptoms, which include:

  • Frustration
  • Fatigue
  • Anxiousness
  • Depression
  • Isolation
  • Hostility towards the host culture

It’s important to have coping mechanisms in place should the above symptoms arise. If employees are moving to a location where one or more colleagues live, implement a buddy system. Encourage host buddies to regularly check in on new arrivals, invite them to social activities, and educate them about local culture and customs. Additionally, take the time to ask expatriate employees how they’re doing without going into work-related topics. If they exhibit signs of culture shock, try to pinpoint the source of their frustration and respond empathetically. You can also use this as an opportunity to remind employees of any resources that are available to them, such as paid counseling or digital mental health tools.

2. Language barriers

Language barriers are one of the hardest challenges that international employees face. Moving to a new country without knowledge of the local language increases the potential for isolation. In Europe alone, there are over 230 spoken languages. And while it’s becoming increasingly easy for English-speakers to travel to and live in larger cities across the world, there are large swaths of the global population that do not speak English. One of the best deterrents against culture shock is learning the local language early on. Even having a rudimentary understanding of it can help tremendously. Consider providing employees with a stipend for language classes or access to language-learning software.

3. Loneliness and separation

Humans are social animals. Whether introverted or extroverted, our sense of psychological well-being is connected to our relationships with others. It can take years to build up social networks and the act of leaving them behind, even temporarily, can be traumatic. This is something that employees often struggle with when working in new locations—personally and professionally. 

a young, sad looking man walks through a subway tunned while carrying a duffel bag

To counteract loneliness, it’s important to find ways for your distributed employees to engage with one another. As mentioned earlier, having a buddy system in place is a great way to help expatriate employees feel connected to others. Also, having a physical office space (when possible) allows colleagues to convene, socialize, and strengthen their working relationships. However, when this isn’t possible, regular communication through digital platforms such as Zoom or Slack can, at the very minimum, ensure that your employees feel connected to their co-workers and the organization as a whole.

4. Foreign bureaucracy 

As you may already know, living and working abroad can be a bureaucratic headache—for employees and employers. Moving abroad is stressful enough as it is; having to navigate the administrative ins and outs of foreign institutions only compounds it. For most employees, the process is overwhelming. Especially when there’s a language barrier involved. Fortunately, with global mobility partners like Localyze, you can spare your employees the usual hassle that comes with global mobility. By taking this responsibility off their shoulders, you enable them to focus on settling into their new home and to remain productive and at work.

Final thoughts

Moving abroad is a major life change. For many, it’s challenging both mentally and emotionally. As more and more companies operate internationally, supporting the well-being and mental health of international employees will become increasingly important. While the size and scope of well-being programs will vary, the most important takeaway is knowing that there are many things employers can do to help expat employees feel better. Companies that have proactive strategies in place will safeguard the health and productivity of their most valuable asset— their employees.

Want to learn more about how Localyze can help your employees adjust more easily when moving abroad? Then we’d love to talk.

The contents of our website, specifically the articles discussing legal topics, are researched with the utmost care. However, the provider cannot assume any liability for the correctness, completeness, and topicality of the information provided. In particular, the information is of a general nature and does not contain legal advice in individual cases. For the solution of specific legal matters, please consult a lawyer.

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