Expat Focus Mental Health Update March 2022

The past few years have been extremely challenging for people across the globe. Since the pandemic began, we have reported on its devastating impact on expats’ physical, financial and mental wellbeing. We now face yet another crisis: war. In late February, Russia invaded Ukraine, and even those not directly impacted have felt its repercussions. In this article, we take a look at the effect of conflict on mental health, and what businesses can do to support their employees.

Ukrainians living in Australia are, the online magazine The Conversation reports, experiencing a range of symptoms:

“Emotions ranged from periods of relief and calm, to unbearable fear, sleeplessness, irritability, inability to concentrate, feelings of frustration, loneliness, sadness, worry, guilt and bouts of extreme emotional exhaustion.”

To deal with this, a trauma-informed approach needs to be taken, and community support is regarded as crucial by mental health professionals. What’s known as ‘long distance suffering’ is an issue, applying not only to those whose homeland has been invaded, but to all expats who have been separated from their country of origin and who are concerned about their families back home. Even people with no direct ties to the conflict, but who experience normal human sympathy, may find the situation distressing.

So, if you find yourself struggling, what can you do to feel better? We recommend striking a balance between staying informed and becoming addicted to watching the news for recent developments. It’s important to spend time focusing on things unrelated to the crisis, even if this proves challenging. Consider taking breaks from social media, but ensure you do not become isolated. If possible, spend time with loved ones in person, and think of conversation topics that don’t centre around distressing situations.

Not every expat who has relocated as a result of conflict experiences mental health issues. Psychologists say that in some people, relief at being in a safer place and having escaped conflict can generate a positive mindset. However, unfortunately, people coming out of a tough situation are more likely to experience PTSD and anxiety. Psychologist and epidemiologist Dr. Manuel Carballo is Executive Director of the International Center of Migration, Health and Development in Geneva. He is also a consultant to the WHO and the European Center for Disease Control and spent his early childhood in a refugee camp. He says:

“A lack of control takes away our power and undermines the extent to which we feel equipped to care for ourselves in the future…We’re deeply influenced by our feelings of control and when we lose that control, we become vulnerable to a wide spectrum of dangers and threats to our mental and physical health.”

He points out that this sort of crisis is particularly destabilising to those who are already vulnerable: children, the elderly and people who may be undergoing treatment for mental health issues and whose treatment may have been interrupted.

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What can you do to support your employees?

Many large companies employ personnel in countries that have been impacted by the war. Experts suggest that corporate leaders acknowledge the conflict and make sure that their employees have access to help. It is important to first identify who are worst affected. Personnel who have been through a previous conflict may particularly find that their equilibrium is suffering, along with those whose home nation’s conflict has been treated differently by the international community.

Remind your workplace about inclusivity and anti-discriminatory language. This can become particularly tense if you have employees from countries on both sides of a conflict. Remember that not every person on the aggressive side of the conflict will agree with it, and those people, too, may be afraid for people back home. For example, in the current conflict, with the increasing crackdowns on social media in Russia itself and the effect of sanctions imposed by other countries, your Russian employees may also be suffering from stress and, possibly, guilt and powerlessness.

Use Employee Research Groups and affinity groups to support employees and mediate if necessary. Help your workforce by educating them in signs of distress expressed by others. Flexibility over workloads and deadlines may need to be increased, especially if employees are trying to support family and friends back home. In instances where time zones between workplaces and home countries differ significantly, you may need to work around different start and end times to the working day. Make sure that your managers and teams have the resources that they need to offer support.

It may be worth directing employees to useful virtual services, too. For example, the Disaster Distress Helpline provides 24-hour, toll-free crisis counselling and support to people experiencing emotional distress related to natural or human-caused disasters.

Consulting firm Gartner point out that it’s crucial to support managers, who may find themselves having to act as mental health counsellors without necessarily having the qualifications to do so. Human resource site HR Zone says that communication is key. Again, make sure that you are working to create a culture of support and that your personnel have access to EAPs (Employee Assistance Programmes), especially those which use trained counsellors.

Make sure that you’re aware of statutory requirements when it comes to sick and bereavement leave, and that your employees are aware of these, too.

Many of your employees who are not directly affected by the conflict will want to help. Organising donation drives or collection points for goods, if practicable, may be a good idea. Local businesses in the UK have been working with Polish delivery teams, for example, to assist with sending medical and other supplies directly to the Ukrainian border.


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