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Keeping an eye on expat mental health

mental health

I always keep a box of tissues nearby when I’m facilitating a pre departure program. 

Why? These programs are often the first time our clients have talked about how they’re feeling – how overwhelmed they feel dealing with the logistics of the move, how anxious they feel about uprooting their family to a completely new country, or how stressed they feel about taking on a new role where they don’t speak the language.  Last week I had the partner of an expat burst into tears because they were leaving behind their elderly mother and weren’t sure whether they would see them again.

It’s been great to see the focus on employee mental health over the past month, with RUOK?Day on 10 September and World Mental Health Day on 10 October, but there is another layer of complexity when an employee is overseas on assignment. 

The 2017 Aetna International study on ‘Expatriate Mental Health: Breaking the Silence and Ending the Stigma’ found that there was an average increase of 28 per cent in expat mental health claims in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, the Americas and Southeast Asia,  with depression and anxiety among Aetna’s members ranked first and second.

Encouraging people to talk about their mental health and any potential triggers while on an expat assignment is important.  We dedicate an entire module in our pre departure programs to the cycle of adjustment that people go through when they relocate to a new country. We talk about how culture shock can make you feel anxious, depressed and helpless as well affect your sleeping and eating habits. Some of the strategies that can help expats cope while overseas are joining sports clubs or social groups, exercising and eating well, talking to their family and friends about their experience, accessing free counselling through EAP (Employee Assistance Program) and organising weekends away to escape the day to day life.

It’s important that assignees are prepared for the reality of living in a new country – both culturally and psychologically.  Learning the language and undertaking intercultural programs that include modules on managing change and coping with stress can be the key to a settled assignee and a successful assignment. 

Annabel Rattigan is the Intercultural Manager at International Consultants Centre

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