Expatriation: understanding the psychological risks

There’s much to be said for assignments abroad. But living in a foreign land can be stressful. In some cases, expatriation can even trigger complex psychosocial issues and risks for employees and their families. This, in turn, could have business impacts. To avoid such situations, selection of expatriate candidates increasingly takes into account – alongside knowledge and technical skills – a person’s ability to cope with new living and working environment. A new OGP report will help that process.

Managing psychosocial risks: a guide for expatriates in the oil & gas industry (Report No. 495) outlines an overarching risk-based management strategy that identifies potential issues and related risks, as well as actions for prevention and intervention. This report is intended to work in tandem with individual companies’ own specific needs and risks based on geographical, organizational and cultural characteristics.

To mitigate any psychosocial risks, employers and their employees and accompanying families need to be both aware of, and prepared for, changes associated with expatriate work and life, often in completely new cultural contexts.

Motivating factors can affect success

The report also examines motivations for expatriate employment, which in themselves may have an impact on the success of an assignment. Although usually associated with career advancement, opportunity and financial gain, or the desire for travel and exploration, expatriation may also be seen as a means to overcome negative issues. These can include boredom or unhappiness at home. That is why it is advisable to investigate reasons for expatriation before any transfer.

The report outlines broad categories of psychosocial hazards that expatriates may encounter in the workplace and beyond. It also provides a range of strategies designed to address the issues encountered in these contexts. Areas examined include:

  • Job content; workload and workplace
  • Work schedule; control
  • Environment and equipment
  • Organizational culture and function
  • Interpersonal relationships at work
  • Role in organization
  • Career development
  • Home-work interface

‘Burnout’ risks

The report goes on to discuss the consequences relating to psychosocial risks. These may be related to depression, distress, cognitive (thinking) decision-making and attention. Such issues are often associated with a state of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion. Both work and non-work circumstances (for example, non-work referring to financial strain or work- family conflict) can cause, and be significant in, the development in such exhaustion. This is referred to as ‘burnout’. Burnout, in turn, has been linked to unhealthy behaviour, such as excessive drinking and smoking, and also to physical issues such as heart problems, musculoskeletal disorders, obesity and headaches. All such health effects strain work and performance and home relationships.

Another bearing on expatriate performance is the ability to make cross-sociocultural adjustment. Workers who adjust well to a new and foreign environment usually accomplish tasks more efficiently than those who adjust poorly. For this reason, adequate preparation is needed to enable effective employee adjustment. Such preparation is also advisable for accompanying partners or children. All would benefit from being better able to adjust to new cultural practices that govern work and social conditions as well as the new country’s infrastructure. Providing expatriates and their families with background information, such as access to medical provision, schooling and job opportunities for spouses, is recognized to be an important preventive action.

Intervention strategy

The report also explains the importance of establishing an adequate intervention strategy in the event of an employee suffering from a psychological injury. The approach taken to manage such a strategy will depend on the organizational structure of the company or its culture, but would usually consist of three main steps: immediate actions; the rehabilitation phase; and the reintegration phase. Specifically, the report recommends that:

  • Once reported, any case is handled efficiently and quickly (unless any delay is validated), and should involve occupational health expertise
  • Human resources or an occupational health doctor investigates the case to determine the facts, while supporting the employee and their manager(s)
  • Case follow-up and monitoring are appropriate and consistent
  • A reintegration-to-work process be in place before an employee returns to work
  • All personal data is stored and treated with sensitivity and confidentiality

Copies of the report are freely available to download.

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