By Olivier Meier, Mercer
Highly mobile employees might face health problems but their well-being is also affected by less visible factors such as stress, financial, and work-related issues. Demotivation, family issues and ultimately failed assignments can be a manifestation of these issues. Organisations support their mobile employees with comprehensive reward and relocation packages but sometimes fail to take a holistic approach to employee well-being.
How can we design a support program, enlist the support of management, and secure the participation of the assignees themselves?
Employee wellbeing has a broad definition that encompass more than just health issues:
Physical wellbeing: lack of physical activities, sleep deprivation, poor nutrition, life in difficult and polluted environment lead to chronic health problem. The problem is not so much tackling a given disease (through insurance) as avoiding a slow erosion of the physical condition of assignees over time. The objective is to anticipate health problems rather than just pay for medical costs.
Social wellbeing: integration in the host locations and create a sense of connection with a wider community at work and in the daily life is a condition for employees to thrive in a new location. Companies address culture clash through Cultural training but it takes more effort to integrate individuals in foreign teams and build support groups to provided practical information but also to break the sense of isolation.
Financial wellbeing: short-term assignment-related issues are generally addressed via comprehensive relocation packages. But long-term consequences are not always anticipated: pension, savings (currencies). The question of pay need to link with Career: is not so much about guaranteeing a job as maintaining employability: skills and network developed. Being cut from what’s important could pose problem for the future. Accompanying spouse, the huge risk and difficulties of rejoining the workforce.
Mental/emotional wellbeing: Emotional wellbeing is influenced by the other wellbeing dimensions and ultimately drives performance and satisfaction. It can be impacted further by assignment related problems (workload, expectations, family issues.)
Mobility is about more than just one employee
While in a local context companies have a duty of care for their employees, in an international mobility context, the responsibility extents to family members who are also relocated abroad. Beyond strict duty of care, family wellbeing issues reverberate on emotional state and performance of the employees. While Companies are reluctant to get involve in private issues but they might be creating new difficulties by requested employees and their families to move abroad. The willingness of the employees to accept moves doesn’t exonerate employers from their duty of care.
Spouse: accompanying spouses to interrupt their careers. Children: school disruption and making long-term decision about their school curriculum.
Invisible problems: not all assignees are equal when moving to a host location. Women and minorities can face discrimination or additional challenges in some countries. This is true for the employee but also for the family. The issues might be unreported: invisible minorities: the employee can avoid discrimination but a family member might face problems.
The business case
While Duty of care should be in itself a sufficient justification, there are business benefits to proactively support wellbeing of employees.
Managing costs: Proactively support the wellbeing of employees is good for the business: productivity issues, low satisfaction and failed assignments have a cost.
Reputation risks: The perception that a company doesn’t take care of its employees is likely to damage its employer’s branding.
Cascading impact: stressed manager can negatively impact the performance of their teams, negative expats can become a negative role model and disrupt operations in the host countries and also become negative role models – i.e., complaining about their experience abroad and portraying mobility in the companies as a risk for employees.
A different mindset is needed: Retention is not driven purely by pay. Organizations need to put more emphasis on the needs of the whole person (e.g. community, purpose, job satisfaction) and also take into account the need of the family. Wellbeing is an important component of the employee value proposition. Build a business case to show the cost of lack of wellbeing and the business benefits of support and prevention programs.
Foster open communication: give employee the possibility to talk about issues without being penalized. In the context of international assignments, many candidates prefer to take a chance rather than miss a career opportunity. It should be clear to them and their managers than voicing concern is OK and encouraged. Message form the top: employees should not have to choose between their health and their jobs.
Define who is in charge: supporting employee wellbeing requires collaboration between all stakeholders and cannot be driven solely by the HR team. The mobility team, home and host HR teams and line management need to have clear roles and responsibilities to inform and support mobile employees. Training might be required, especially for receiving business units who are not familiar with expatriates. Finally, the employees themselves need to understand what is expected from them and received the information and tools needed to make educated choices.
Incentivize best practices: Asking managers to focus exclusively on financial objectives for managers could deteriorate team work and employee wellbeing. If employee wellbeing is just “a nice to have” without impact on reward and recognition, managers have little incentive to adopt best practices. Teamwork, inclusion, coaching and more generally supporting employees need to be included in performance evaluation criteria. Organizations should also consider rewarding employees willing to enrol in optional prevention and wellbeing programs.
Managing flexibility: Flexibility can enhance wellbeing when applied selectively to allow for a better work-life balance or to let specific employee groups choose what they need. Poorly implemented it could lead to additional stress for employees who don‘t necessarily have all the information and support to make educated choices. In hardship locations excessive policy flexibility can lead to duty of care issues. Elements that are essential for the wellbeing of employees and their families should not be made flexible and optional.
Connect with diversity and inclusion teams: There is a connection between mobility, diversity and wellbeing issues. D&I and Mobility team need to work together to ensure that mobile employee benefits from inclusion initiatives and that mobility is fostering diversity. Lack of inclusion can create wellbeing issues. Support groups and local networks can help with isolation and practical issues.