Caring for a traveler who gets sick, injured or kidnapped is a visible side of travel risk and medical services. Residual trauma also can occur even if an employee is physically unscathed by a car wreck or security incident. Frequent long-distance travel itself can weigh heavily. Culture shock is real for expats and their families.
Emotional support services generally are the province of human resources departments and employee assistance programs. Recognizing a need to loop in travel risk management, International SOS partnered with EAP provider Workplace Options to offer “rapid response psychological support” around the globe.
“While we provide ongoing, regular EAP services, we are frequently asked by our clients to assist them in fleshing out duty of care services,” said Workplace Options SVP Mary Ellen Gornick. “In our current business, we still work a lot with HR as the main contact but increasingly we are seeing the travel team become more interested and involved in making successful overseas assignments.”
Anxiety, stress or depression can affect productivity and performance. Long-term assignments can and do fail. When they do, it’s costly. Gornick said expats or assignees may need help acclimating to new environments, adjusting to day-to-day living there or mitigating reverse culture shock when returning.
International SOS VP of global alliances and partnerships Sally Wang said the joint service is part of a proactive approach embedded within the company’s core medical and security offering.
Client employees get one number to call for medical, security or emotional assistance. This includes counseling for employees and their families. It is available in 60 languages by phone, video call or face to face. Specifics vary by client type, be it an oil and gas company, NGO or academic institution.
Robert Mintz is a former travel agency owner, a long-time travel manager and current member of the Global Business Travel Association’s risk committee. He said every traveling employee is unique when it comes to handling stressful situations.
“You can’t judge people,” Mintz said. “You need a system to accommodate the broad spectrum.” He said the new service addresses that while playing to the International SOS strength in global medical services.
Health and travel assistance company On Call International said it also provides emotional and psychological support around the globe. According to president Tom Davidson, it does so through a partnership with an unnamed behavioral health crisis and disaster management company. He said the most common issue addressed by the service is pre-existing mental health disorders exacerbated in unfamiliar cultures.
While On Call typically works with HR, Davidson said travel, risk and corporate security departments also get involved.
Davidson said organizations may bring in a counselor to talk with employees after a terrorist attack. “Does the employer need to do this?” he asked. “Not necessarily, but organizations are learning that the investment in their employees’ well-being is a smart move on many fronts – from workplace culture to reputational risk to employee retention and productivity, just to name a few.”
Some traditional U.S. employee assistance programs also extend beyond borders. Chestnut Global Partners, for example, uses a network of local providers for its expatriate assistance program. It includes pre-departure support, “outreach check-ins and cultural adjustment coaching,” and help upon repatriation, according to its materials.
Chestnut managing director Matt Mollenhauer said tackling these issues early is critical. “In general, if you sit back and wait for expats to call for help, they won’t,” he said. Maybe it’s a high-profile assignment and they don’t want to draw attention.
Mollenhauer said employers also tend to take a more passive approach. They focus on the logistics of the travel or relocation, and then become reactive. He said exceptions come from academia, where schools establish emotional support programs before placing students in foreign countries.
For expats and long-term business assignees, “adjusting to the move always is the number one presenting issue,” Mollenhauer said. One misconception is that an assignment for an American worker in the United Kingdom or Europe won’t be as tough as one in Asia, Africa or South America. “People don’t ramp up coping the way they should,” he said. “They underestimate the adjustment.”
Employee awareness is a top challenge. “In this space, we are frequently an afterthought in the benefits world,” Mollenhauer said.
Mintz said training is paramount. Some “best-in-class” companies make it a prerequisite for travel.
“Just because you have a traveler tracker and you checked that box, don’t think you are done,” he said. “That’s baby steps. Everyone has to know the number to call, what the communications capability is and who is at the other end.”