The health challenges of sending employees abroad

Expatriating or relocating your employees comes with a unique set of challenges - not least of which is the health aspect.

The trend of global mobility and collaboration has become more prevalent, with a growing workforce that’s constantly expatriating, repatriating, or simply spending a significant amount of time abroad. This can be observed in Asia, as more people are willing to go overseas for their careers. However, the advantages of an internationally connected team come paired with a daunting amount of preparation and paperwork — for the expatriate themselves, their families and their employers.

About the Author

Abhishek Bhatia is the CEO of FWD Singapore

Despite Singapore being the world's best overall destination for expats, companies and employees have to go through the process set in place to ensure a smooth transition into their new roles.   

There are several challenges to prepare for: 

Insufficient health coverage and flexibility of the policy

It’s hard to achieve the perfect balance of healthcare plans — one that offers more than just the bare bones of coverage, yet isn’t an overkill of duplicated policies. Many expats end up simply leaving the matter to their HR representatives, and settling for whatever their company’s group policy includes.

However, they may later find themselves or their dependents facing unfavourable gaps in coverage. Another challenge expats face is the flexibility of their policy, and whether the benefits still apply when they decide to move back home or to relocate to another country for work.

Having health insurance that is portable and flexible is important, as this will ensure that expats will be able to take their coverage with them, no matter where they go, and regardless of pre-existing health conditions that may arise.

Unremarkable expatriation packages

 Although packages in Singapore are relatively generous, the value of remunerations and benefits for inbound expats are on the decline.

In fact, expat packages in Singapore fell 6 per cent in 2017, and many are now being given ‘localised’ offers — meaning that their compensation is comparable to that of local employees, without the benefits of being a citizen.

An increasing number of expats find themselves with a reduced (or altogether eliminated) base salary, incentives, allowances, social security and retirement plans — making it difficult for them to cope with the high cost of relocation and everyday living expenses in Singapore.

Employee wellbeing in the workplace

Despite technology giving us access to connectivity, and enabling our productivity, it also causes stressful triggers. Modern technology may exacerbate homesickness in adults — social media might offer expats a lifeline to friends and family back home, but it also makes them more reliant or reluctant to let go of old support networks and integrate into new cultures.

In addition to this, pressures in the workplace, long working hours and other factors can prompt anxiety or depression, thereby affecting one’s work.

 

How best to prepare

 
By providing expats with guidance and assistance, this gives them peace of mind to focus on their priorities, since they have to juggle work and relocation during this period.
 
Here are some recommendations on how to work closely with them to identify their needs, and provide suitable advice:
 
Offer bespoke insurance benefits to employees

This works especially well for start-ups and small- or medium-sized businesses. Assist employees in augmenting their existing health plans with bespoke solutions, for a more cost-effective option.

Provide comprehensive coverage that suits the needs of the modern expat 

Organisations should be kept up to date on workplace trends and how they affect employees. For example, people in recent years have become more open to discussing and addressing mental health. When recommending a health policy, HR teams should ensure that it covers psychiatric and psychological care to provide support to employees who are a long way from home.

Also, it is worth finding policies that includes alternative treatments, such as traditional Chinese medicine. This could be important for expats hailing from countries that are more traditional. Finally, providing coverage for medical evacuation and repatriation is a key consideration for expats, which should not be overlooked.

Ensure that coverage is borderless and flexible, regardless of the expat’s location

This is perhaps the most important. HR professionals and their organisations should also keep this in mind for local employees who travel regularly for work, or are posted to a different country often. With the latter in mind, HR professionals always need to be mindful and considerate of ensuring parity and fairness across the entire organisation. So, finding the right balance between the needs of local and expat staff is critical.

 

Considerations to keep in mind

When looking at health plans for today’s employees, organisations should consider the following aspects:

Hassle-free: Ideally offered by one service provider, who can provide a portfolio of insurance products according to each employee’s needs. This way, each individual is able to manage their own finances;
 
Customisable: This allows employees to start with a basic plan, and then choose any additional coverage. Being able to create bespoke plans is especially handy for expats, who may need to mix and match benefits that are most relevant to them;
 
Borderless and flexible: Where employees can rely on their policies to give them access to accredited partners, no matter where they are in the world (insurers must note the eligible markets for their policies), and still benefit from the policy when they return home.
 
When moving people around the world, one of the biggest things for companies to look out for are medical benefits. They might vary greatly from country to country, the quality of medical care, and its cost and processing.
 
We believe insurance needs to be portable and flexible so that assignees can take it with them no matter where they go, regardless of pre-existing health conditions. Additionally, organisations and employees should only pay for what they need. Modular, independent benefits that offer flexibility for employees to choose the benefits according to their needs is important for the modern expat.
 
A flexible option can be more effective for smaller businesses or start-ups, when compared to multinational companies — which usually have long-term insurance providers. Today’s globetrotting employees seek efficient solutions that they can handle by themselves online — whether they are in Singapore, Australia or India. This is why employers and HR should pick digital insurance companies that have cut out multiple intermediaries, allowing customers to manage their own policies directly — from purchase to a fully digital claims process — that is fast and efficient.
 
Employers and HR professionals could pick plans that incentivise employees to stay healthy. For example, some insurers offer discounts and gifts for having walked a certain number of steps each day, or for completing more than three workouts per week. Others might increase customers’ annual limits if they have not made any claims against their policy in the previous year.