Professor Chris Rowley: Covid-19 has exacerbated the challenge of supporting expat health and wellbeing


The Covid-19 (Coronavirus) global pandemic has impacted on the world of work with influences stemming from not only the inherent health risk posed in the workplace and related travel, but also in terms of the imposition of various types and levels of restrictions, lockdowns and work-from-home orders.

One group of employees where these impacts may have been more keenly felt are expatriate (expat) staff. This is for a set of reasons. Expat life is not always ‘glamorous’. Rather, expats may not only be in unfamiliar settings, but also those with large national cultural distance and ‘comfortableness’ from their own and they may be inexperienced in cross-cultural working and living. Furthermore, expats may also be separated from families, friends and support networks. These sorts of situations and factors create feelings of isolation which may in turn be turbocharged if expats are then also working from home and away from offices and colleagues. Such feelings can impact on the often ignored or ‘brushed under the carpet’ area of mental health and wellbeing.

This raises an interlocking set of very difficult questions that HR professionals should not only be aware of but have agreed, consistent, clear and defensible answers to. For example, starting from basic principles, should employers actually support such staff in these sorts of areas? And if so, to what extent and how? First, there can be a fraught and difficult debate about exactly where a consistent and defensible line is drawn between what can be considered to be purely private matters or something that the employer has an interest or even responsibility in. Linked to this is how reactive, i.e. waiting for expats to reach out, versus proactive, i.e. reaching out to expats, employers are and the mechanisms of the when and how to do this.

Second, clarity is needed on who exactly is offered such support; this is in terms of both coverage within and across the organisation and if this includes family members and if so, which ones and where they are located. Third, there can be discussion about how much support is provided and by what means and by whom. Is this an area of competency for HR internally or is it to be outsourced to a variety of professionals? In both scenarios critical issues revolve around what robust systems are in place to not only offer and monitor support, but also to respect and keep safe its outcomes and policies and who has access to such data and for what purposes and for how long.

There are no easy answers here. But then again, such HR questions never lend themselves to such things as they are dealing with real people.

Professor Chris Rowley is visiting fellow at Kellogg College, University of Oxford, and professor emeritus, human resource management, at Bayes Business School, City, University of London