Author: Dr.Phil Sharples, Chief Medical Officer, Global Solutions, UnitedHealthcare Global

Sending an employee on an overseas assignment whether short, medium or long term can be a big decision for both an employer and employee. This is even more so in a COVID-19 environment. In fact, 41% of people globally are expected to travel less than before1, and for those who are planning to travel, the prospect of being away from home can cause anxiety given the changing environment.

First and foremost, employers have a duty of care to their employees. It is important employers consider and mitigate the potential risks that can arise from assignments, which sometimes involves moving entire families to the other side of the world - a hugely exciting prospect but one that needs careful consideration and planning.

It is critical that sufficient preparation is put in place to support employees prior to any overseas deployment, to help make the transition as smooth as possible. Below are a few things to consider as employers prepare employees and their families.

Healthcare and wellbeing

Employers should consider conducting a health screening ahead of an overseas assignment so health risks can be identified before departure. UnitedHealthcare Global offers a Virtual Health Assessment programme where employees and families can be quickly assessed ahead of any assignment. The majority of individuals and families are quickly identified as a low health risk and can embark on assignments as planned. Where risks are identified, advice is given on proactive ways to manage these risks and develop a mitigation plan for both the employer and the employee, whether for short or long-term travel

Health screening helps put families at ease ahead of an overseas assignment, providing vital reassurance which enables individuals and families to focus on other aspects of moving abroad without having to worry about healthcare. UnitedHealthcare Global’s Health Management programme refers employees and families to an assigned clinician to help manage any chronic conditions. From helping families access the proper medications in a new location to finding a healthcare provider who can offer the care required locally, these tools provide valuable peace of mind to family members.

Employers can also play an important role in educating employees about the healthcare system in a new location. There will very likely be different rules and restrictions about payment and cover, and it is likely that examinations, vaccinations and check-ups may also work differently. It is much better to have these processes clarified by providing employees access to tools like UnitedHealthcare Global Intelligence Centre, where this vital information can be found and enables individuals to learn about new local healthcare systems and local government requirements at the touch of a button.

It is important that employees and families have adequate mental health support on an overseas assignment and know how to access it. UnitedHealthcare Global’s Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) offers employees and their families counselling face-to face, online or via telephone. Supporting the mental wellbeing of the whole family is essential, especially when so many assignments can fail due to family and non-work-related issues.2 Making employees aware of this support could mean the difference between success and failure on an overseas visit.

Employers should also proactively promote wellbeing services such as UnitedHealthcare Global’s Optum My Wellbeing app. Services such as this can be used during assignments to help manage both physical and mental wellbeing and also keep people socially connected through community challenges.


A vital part of traveling overseas for employees is identifying accommodation and the local facilities which may be required whilst abroad such as schools, sports clubs and recreational activities. It may be the case that employers will support employees to find temporary accommodation upon arrival and giving the employee time to find somewhere more permanent following arrival at the assignment location. Employers should discuss the range of possible options with employees well in advance of departure.

new-assignmentThere are various security risks to consider when sending an employee to an unfamiliar location. Employers should ensure employees are supported in finding accommodation in a safe location by monitoring the security risks for specific areas. UnitedHealthcare Global’s Intelligence Centre offers members various security resources, such as identifying a part of a city that may be safer to live in than another. 

Identifying schools for children or childcare is also something to consider before moving. Again, this is something employers can help with by drawing on those who have been relocated to the area previously. If families are truly supported by employers and IPMI providers, assignments have the best possible chance of success.

Cultural training and education

Overseas assignments are often to countries with very different cultural environments to the employee’s home country. Culture shock can compound the usual feelings of nerves associated with a new job and unfortunately can contribute to a failed assignment.3 Currently, only 38% of companies with a globally mobile workforce offer cultural training for employees and families, with 35% offering no training at all.This leaves a large number of families potentially unprepared and uneducated about a new country – especially at a time when many of us have done little international travel as a result of COVID-19.

Suitable cultural training can help minimise the culture shock that can arise upon arrival in a new country - whether this be implementing a buddy system so employees can talk with another employee who has recent experience of the destination country, or cultural awareness and language courses to educate individuals about respecting local laws, customs, and the language. Promoting practical training courses that enhance cultural understanding will encourage positive cross-cultural working relationships, as well as positive relationships outside of work. Attending cultural training may help mitigate the chance of miscommunication and more broadly homesickness as the employee and their family adjusts to their new home and social network.

Fundamentally, employers need to consider the varied challenges and risks before sending an employee overseas, particularly in a COVID-19 environment. However, with the proper measures in place and keeping in close contact with employees, employers can plan and mitigate the risks.