How to support employees stranded abroad during the pandemic
With COVID-19 restrictions constantly changing and evolving worldwide, many employees taking business trips to other countries, or already working abroad, have found that they are suddenly either banned from returning to their home country or not allowed to leave the country they have visited. Employers must ensure they are able to support employees who are stranded away from home.
Employers of global employees need to keep abreast of changes throughout the world, as they can change rapidly. The Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker shows the biggest increases in stringency of COVID-19 regulations over the last few weeks have been made in France and Canada. Kenya, Japan, and Oman also feature high on the list of relative recent increases in the severity of restrictions.
Sarah Dennis, Head of International at Towergate Health & Protection, explained: “Countries can shut their borders with very little notice, leaving employees stranded abroad. They will be likely to be unsure of their rights, in need of support, and will require looking after and they’ll look to their employer for that help.”
It’s important to remember that if an employee is working abroad with just with travel insurance and they’ve travelled against advice of the Foreign Commonwealth Office (FCO) then that insurance will be invalid. However, if an employee has international private medical insurance in place, then this will still be valid if the country where they’re stranded is covered under their existing policy.
The challenges of working away from home should not be underestimated amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Even if employees have been in a particular country for some time and have set down some roots there, it will be mentally tough if they are under strict COVID-19 regulations. Many employees will not have had the regular visits home that would normally have taken place over the last year.
Although the UK now has a roadmap to opening up again, and the vaccine programme has been hugely successful, this is not always the case in other countries. Employees who are living and working abroad may be under much tougher restrictions and facing lockdown for the foreseeable future. These employees will need more support than ever and it will be important to maintain high levels of employee engagement.
The main advice for employers is not to ask employees to travel for work purposes unless it is absolutely necessary. If they must travel, they must be properly supported. Travel insurance should not be used as an adequate substitute for medical insurance, particularly if someone has pre-existing medical conditions which are often excluded, but are likely to be covered under international private medical insurance.
Both the employer and the employee should make sure they understand the rules regarding quarantining when they arrive in the new country, and for when they return home. They should also keep up to date regarding the country’s specific COVID-19 rules and regulations, especially surrounding foreign travel. These will be changing all the time.
The employer needs to consider how it will be funded if an employee suddenly has to lock down in a hotel. They will still have to comply with the insurance details and these will need to be carefully checked as there may be restrictive clauses, like limits to the number of days stayed. It is important, therefore, for employers to seek expert advice.
There are many ways employers can provide support for employees working abroad during the pandemic. Some options may already exist within current employee benefits packages that an employer has in place, but are perhaps under-utilised. For example, overseas employees should have health and wellbeing support in place, and this may have added-value features like global Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs).
Through these, they will be able to access support and advice regarding the difficulties of being away from home, with counselling services and mental health support. It’s important to support both the mental and physical health of employees abroad, with benefits such as health and fitness apps, and providing access to virtual medical assistance such as online GP services, all of which will prove invaluable in lockdown in a strange country.
Sarah concluded: “If employers have people working overseas, then they need to give extra thought to the difficulties they may be facing and remember that they may be under stricter regulations than we currently have in the UK. Employers have a duty of care to employees and it is best to seek expert advice to ensure they consider how best to do this.”