With World Mental Health Day coming up on October 10, it’s important to recognize that mental health is an ongoing global issue impacting all facets of society — some 350 million people worldwide suffer from depression alone. The World Economic Forum reported in 2018 that mental health disorders are on the rise in every country in the world and could cost the global economy up to $16 trillion between 2010 and 2030 if there is no action taken.

As a society, we tend to think of mental health problems as a sign of personal weakness, or something that only happens to others. And with that as our basic mindset, it’s no wonder many are hesitant to admit they are feeling mentally unwell or that they won’t seek help for their condition. It’s no wonder that the discussion surrounding mental health is halting, and that there is a stigma attached.

It’s well known that the expat population is particularly reluctant to acknowledge mental health issues. Part of the reason is that the employees who are sent abroad are typically those considered highly skilled, as well as high-functioning. Many are in leadership positions. Admitting mental health issues under those premises is difficult.

Yet, relocating abroad and working in a cross-cultural environment is known to be very mentally taxing. Not only are you leaving behind your traditional support network of friends and family, but you are also facing a whole new set of societal and work-related rules and norms. As a result, many end up feeling lonely and isolated which takes a toll on mental health.

A study published in 2018 by IJHP (International Journal of Health & Productivity) concluded that expats are 50% more likely to develop anxiety and depression compared to US domestic workers. Inevitably, these are issues that impact performance at work, and may even lead to early termination of an international assignment.

Data shows that workers with depression miss the equivalent of 27 workdays per year, and the cost of a failed, or early termination-assignment can be as much as $500 000. The cost of sub-par performance because of mental health issues can be measured not just in money, but in lesser outcomes and missed future business opportunities.

The figures for the potential impact of mental health disorders are daunting, but there are effective mitigation strategies that can be put in place. On a corporate level, building support programs, and actively promoting them, is crucial in supporting mental health. In addition, building a company culture that is accepting of showing vulnerabilities is a powerful way of championing mental health.

For the expat population specifically, cross-cultural training is an important piece to being able to settle well, and by extension performing well — in life and at work. Support packages for intercultural training can consist of various components such as online programs, in-person training, and coaching, all in combination with access to healthcare (including mental healthcare).

Equally important is making sure that the employee knows what kind of support is available and how to leverage the resources when needed. It’s not uncommon for this kind of information to get lost in the general hustle and bustle of onboarding/relocating, so, it’s crucial to

  • have a plan for how to communicate what resources are available, and
  • making sure the employee knows where and how to access the resources.

Perhaps the best tool of all in fighting mental health issues is one that is available to all of us — to talk openly about struggles and to recognize that mental health, like physical health, is a part of the human condition. Removing the stigma is in itself an act that can lead to better mental health outcomes.

By: Felicia Shermis 

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