Employees Working Overseas Feel Isolated

May 15, 2002
Faced with growing uncertainty about their health and safety while on international assignment, a majority of employees working in foreign countries feel that not enough is being done to help them cope.

More than half of the employees interviewed for a new study said the lack of information about health and safety issues was detrimental to their peace of mind and performance on the job. The findings were presented at the WorldatWork 47th Annual Conference and Exhibition.

"With growing tensions around the globe, employees on overseas assignment feel increasingly overwhelmed by health and safety concerns, and think they aren't being provided with the preparation and support they need," says Virginia Hollis, vice president of Global Markets for CIGNA International Expatriate Benefits. "Expatriates are looking for more peace of mind, and right now they're not getting it."

Hollis noted that some 55 percent of overseas workers felt they needed more assistance to keep them informed about current, changing or potentially adverse health and safety conditions and how to cope with them. Only 20 percent praised their companies for maintaining a "best-practice" communications process that keeps them up-to-date and fully informed through security bulletins, contingency plans and emergency guidelines, she says.

Despite that, Hollis notes that 77 percent of the survey respondents said recent events did not diminish the likelihood of completing their assignments, and 74 percent saw no change in their willingness to accept a future expatriate position.

Employees did say they were disappointed more help was not made available in light of international tensions. Nearly 40 percent of expatriates felt their workplace did not do a good job preparing them for their international assignment. Fifty-six percent rated negatively the coordination between local-country and home-office human resources departments. Also, 35 percent expected to leave their current employer within five years.

These findings are important in view of the investment multinational firms make in expatriate employees - an average of $1.3 million per employees for a typical assignment. "Employers need to realize that health and welfare issues play a crucial role in the outcome of an international assignment and the ultimate return to the company," Hollis adds.

Anne Ruddy, CPCU, executive director of WorldatWork, noted the survey's strong indication that family can be an important component in the satisfaction and success of an expatriate. "The data show that family support is an essential part of the success quotient for an expatriate," comments Ruddy. "But at the same time, when more than one out of two dual career expats report that their spouse or partner had to make a sacrifice in their own career to enable the foreign assignment, it shows how difficult this can be on the family."

According to Bill Sheridan, senior director of the National Foreign Trade Council, expatriates represent a substantial international workforce estimated at 3 to 5 million business people. "Companies invest an average of $1.3 million for each expatriate during the course of a typical three-year assignment," Sheridan says. "To protect that investment, managers should apply best practices to attract them, support them on the job and repatriate them."

The survey asked respondents to suggest best practices for companies to adopt in better handling expatriate family welfare, community and on-the-job challenges. Suggestions include:

  • Providing cross-cultural and language training.
  • Maintaining ongoing communications regarding health and safety issues for most host countries.
  • Ensuring expatriate benefits packages are sufficiently generous and tailored to the unique needs of employees on assignment.
  • Providing cultural adjustment assistance for families of business executives on international assignment.
  • Helping executives balance both personal and professional needs while on assignment.

A total of 709 employees who were on active assignments outside their home countries participated in this year's study via an in-depth survey posted on the Internet in five languages. They represented more than 200 multinational companies with operations based mostly in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Germany, Belgium, Netherlands, Switzerland, Italy and Spain.

The second annual study of expatriate issues was conducted from January through March 2002 and was sponsored by CIGNA International Expatriate Benefits, a business unit of CIGNA Corp.; the National Foreign Trade Council, which supports open international trade and investment; and WorldatWork, the leading global rewards association focused on attracting, retaining and motivating employees.

About the Author

Sandy Smith

Sandy Smith is the former content director of EHS Today, and is currently the EHSQ content & community lead at Intelex Technologies Inc. She has written about occupational safety and health and environmental issues since 1990.

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