Uncovering how to support the emotional wellbeing of a global workforce

The impact poor mental health can have on a workforce is increasingly well recognised. The role employers can play has huge potential in supporting emotional wellbeing and offsetting its negative effects, but as businesses grow their workforces globally, how can employers provide cross-cultural health and wellbeing solutions that are inclusive and support diversity?

“When “I” is replaced with “We,” even illness becomes wellness.”

Malcolm X

While businesses are increasingly invested in supporting employee health, historically the primary focus has been on physical health and safety. Firms have become well versed in asking the right questions to ensure they are meeting these requirements – for example, do employees have access to adequate medical care, and is the correct personal protective equipment provided?

As we enter a new era of mental health awareness supporting the financial, emotional, and social wellbeing of employees is becoming a growing concern for employers in their quest for pertinent and powerful wellbeing solutions. Aon has uncovered that the number of firms who have a health and wellness budget is 38% – up from 33% in 2019. But despite this rise, almost two-thirds of businesses are still struggling to find the budget for what many acknowledge is key to employee wellbeing.

For businesses that operate globally there are additional challenges when it comes to supporting and nurturing staff who are new to a country, or who you manage from a distance. Changing patterns of mobility and technological advancements have broken down international barriers, allowing people to work seamlessly across time zones. However ensuring a consistent approach to the emotional wellbeing of your people can be challenging when you are dealing with differences in culture, language, service availability, and regulatory structures.

Janet Heaton, Principal Consultant for Global Benefits at Aon, explains why understanding your people is essential to a successful placement and transition:

“While many large multinationals are providing a base-level of support and show the appetite to support mobile workers and their families — the reality is that the speed of business often moves faster than practicalities. Assignment counselling and screening isn’t always adequate and without having all the information about the health of your people, businesses risk delays in getting coverage for what should be a simple placement.”

Janet Heaton, Principal Consultant for Global Benefits at Aon

The true cost and impact of poor mental health

Last year there were more than half a million cases of work related stress, depression or anxiety in the UK. An increasing pattern of mental health issues reflects across EMEA — a 2018 EMEA report suggested that one in six Europeans had a mental health issue.

The reality facing employers today is that sickness absence, reduced productivity, and staff turnover relating to mental health is financially staggering. In the UK alone mental health is costing businesses more than 90 million lost working days, while the total European cost of mental ill health is estimated at more than 4% of GDP, which totals at €600 billion.

The personal cost of poor mental health to individuals and families is also significant. In the UK 300,000 people a year lose their jobs because of a long-term mental health problem, while tragically there were more than 84,000 premature deaths annually across the EU due to mental health and suicide in 2015.

As a result, we are seeing a seismic shift in employee expectations and demands.

The Aon 2020 Benefits and Trends Survey uncovered that 88% of employers reported that employees expect better awareness and handling of mental health issues from them.

The report identified that these demands were higher than for improved maternity/paternity policies, or a better approach to diversity and inclusion.

The increasing impact of mental health challenges and the changing landscape of employee requirements demonstrates that mental health policies and support should be high on the agendas of HRDs.

These factors combined indicate that a well structured culture of wellbeing could impact both the recruitment of global talent, and the ability to help employees thrive in the workplace. As health services come under increasing strain, businesses have a critical role to play in the provision of mental health support. A role that ACAS believes is a shared responsibility between workers, managers and employers.


of employers reported that employees expect better awareness and handling of mental health issues from them.

Breaking down the stigma

The stigma of mental health in workplaces is still an uncomfortable reality. Access to support is also only part of the story; a major report commissioned by the UK government in 2017 reported that half of employees would not discuss mental health with their line manager.

The reluctance of such a huge number of people to open up at work indicates that mental health is still taboo. Whether it is anxiety about asking for what they need, concerns about being passed up for a promotion, or worries about confidentiality, many employees still fear discrimination will follow an open discussion about their mental health.

When it comes to destigmatising mental health in the workplace, more needs to be done than offering services and signposting people to them. For a comprehensive health and safety policy to truly work, it should be supported by a company culture that encourages open conversations about mental health and the support available, with routine monitoring of employee mental health and wellbeing. Something that Aon’s health solutions can help to shape and support.

Global disparities and how to close the gap

When placing employees into global positions, cultural challenges and isolation can create additional barriers for those needing to access help and support.

There are wide variations in attitudes towards mental health across the globe, from acceptance, tolerance, stigma, and fear. The language used to describe mental health can vary greatly too, as can attitudes towards mental health treatment, with some countries excluding psychiatric care or prohibiting access to certain drug treatments.

These variances can pose a risk for anyone considering working in a different country, where there could be a reluctance to move away from therapies and treatments that are currently working. Knowing about your people and what they need can mitigate these risks, but in order to do this you must first create an environment of openness.
Janet believes that company culture is the key to breaking down the challenges felt by global workforces:

‘If you can create a culture that is accepting and supportive, then you are likely to have better emotional health outcomes for your employees. Positivity, belonging, and acceptance can do a great amount for people’s emotional wellbeing.’

Global banking giant HSBC is one example of a multinational taking a stand in the fight to destigmatise mental health across the globe and create a proactive culture of wellbeing. Last year they joined forces with United for Global Mental Health (UGMH) to champion awareness of mental health in the workplace. As well as hosting events and training that support mental health awareness, they are also empowering their staff to talk openly and share their experiences with colleagues.

What you can do today

Over and above offering the traditional insurances and protections for your global workforce, you can enhance the employee experience and help to build resilience within your people by providing consistent, meaningful, and engaging cross-cultural health and wellbeing solutions.

1. Treat mental health in the same way you would a physical condition 
Creating a mental health first aid policy can help ingrain a culture of wellbeing within the workplace, in the same way physical first aid has been accepted. Businesses large and small are adopting a policy of training mental health first aiders to respond to colleagues in distress with compassion, patience and understanding. A consistent approach to emotional wellbeing support across the globe, promoted via awareness-raising activities, is a way to destigmatise mental health in the workplace, and encourage more openness from those that are struggling.

2. Utilise technology
Technology has transformed our ability to connect and collaborate with employees, as well as monitor their progress. Apps can encourage positive behavioural changes – from diet and fitness to mindfulness and sleep. Smartwatches can also be used to measure and monitor health and wellbeing data, offering individuals instant solutions and motivation.

Well One from Aon is helping transform the landscape for employers. It can be particularly useful for understanding global trends within your business, by providing data driven insights from employee health scores. The ability to analyse the physical, social, emotional, professional and financial wellbeing of your people at any point in time can help to reduce risk, and drive healthy behaviour change across your organisation

3. Support good communication
Creating a culture of connection between management and team members is achieved through open communication. This becomes even more critical to those staff operating within a new country and culture, given that isolation can have a detrimental impact on an individual’s mental health. Businesses that practice open, transparent communication can break down the ‘us vs. them’ mentality and foster closer relationships between managers and team members. Using internal social portals to share achievements, promotions and informal discussions can also help all staff feel more engaged and connected, so encourage communication that helps your global workforce feel a true sense of belonging.

4. Acknowledge cultural and language challenges and adopt cultural references
Cultural diversity can bring new communication challenges to the workplace. Supporting your employees to understand the regulations, sensitivities, and cultural differences of the countries they are working in/with will help to support good communication and connectedness. Prepare your people by offering cultural and language coaching to help your employees and their families understand the nuances and differences they may encounter, particularly in relation to mental health. Utilising the experience of local experts can help to demystify the cultural landscape and prepare your people for successful working relationships in whichever country they operate in.

Janet explains the importance of being culturally aware, and how adopting a progressive approach to wellbeing can have real benefits:

“We’ve seen clients run really inspiring community events that contribute towards building a culture of wellbeing that is specific to the country they are working in. For example, some of our clients in India organise a ‘Bring your parents to work day,’ because of the cultural importance of this relationship. And by extending benefits to parents there, they’ve seen some beneficial results in terms of employee wellbeing and engagement.”

Janet Heaton, Principal Consultant for Global Benefits at Aon

Wellness makes good business sense

Companies are only as strong as the people who work for them, so in today’s volatile world it makes sense to put people at the centre of your business and invest in their success.

Providing health and wellbeing solutions for our workforces is not just about providing a basic package of support and expecting people to access what they need. To be a business that curates a culture of wellness you need to match flexible support services with an ideology of empathy, care, and compassion.
The businesses of the future are those that build resilience within their people to realise their potential.

While change is often the only certainty, our support is guaranteed.

Speak to an Aon adviser to discover how you can help to improve the health and wellbeing of your team.

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