How to protect employees abroad

Protect employees abroad

Leigh Burns of International SOS, the medical assistance and travel security company, explains what you can do to protect employees on overseas assignments from harm – from car accidents to tooth infections

Insurance is never enough

Burns says: “We see companies who say, ‘We’re fine, we’ve got insurance. If things go wrong, we can get people out.’ But if an employee has had a car accident in the middle of China and doesn’t understand the language, the answer isn’t always an insurance card. You’ve got to support that person throughout.”

Ensure staff have medicals before travelling 

“For white-collar workers, having a medical is certainly a return on investment. Our research has shown a £1 investment returns a benefit of £1.32. But it depends on the type of risk your staff will be exposed to. Dental problems in Paris aren’t such a big deal. But if you end up with severe toothache in China, it could result in an evacuation. Not only is that expensive for the employer, but it’s stressful and dangerous too.”

Consider families too 

“When travellers take families with them, the spouse often doesn’t have the community around for help, especially pregnant women who find themselves thrust into a new culture. You need to think about the compound, schools, whether they need transport every day, bodyguards and how lonely the family will feel. Pre-planning is important.”

Keep in touch

“We regularly hear from large companies that say their business has grown so much, they don’t know where their staff are, let alone if they need help. One of the most important things is having a way of locating and communicating with your staff, letting them know that you’re there and who to contact in the event of an emergency. We use tracking software, so that if something does go wrong, we can see whether that person has the ability to reach out and get help. If they don’t reach out, a manager is alerted.”

Ensure you have the right information

“During last year’s Ebola crisis, some employees said, ‘I’m not going to that place’ and insurance policies refused to cover them. However, many companies needed to look at the facts. The irony of the outbreak was that our medical team reported the biggest risk [for international employees] in those countries was not Ebola, but all the normal things you can get in places like Sierra Leone, such as malaria. The cost of stopping production on a vessel or rig, could be $1m [£652,000] a day – which could have been prevented with the right advice or screenings.”

Watch the news!

“For at-risk countries where trouble is always bubbling away, watch the news, keep abreast of what’s going on via the latest Foreign Office advice ( If you send people somewhere and didn’t tell them about malaria, or give them a medical screening beforehand which could have diagnosed a heart condition, then [when things go wrong] not only is it sad for the employer, but the reputational and financial risk is immense.”

Don’t forget the small stuff

“Make sure staff are aware of the little things. For example, take a portable door stop/wedge to use in your room when sleeping or in the bathroom, as burglars can easily obtain keys in some hotels. As a female traveller, I’ll seek out specific advice such as looking for well-lit corridors, if I’m travelling on my own. Also, don’t put your business address or logo on your suitcase – if you’re travelling to a high-risk country for kidnapping, you don’t want to be associated with an organisation that might pay for a potential ransom.”

It’s not just about physical health

“Many companies think about giving staff medicals before travelling but won’t ask questions about psychological issues. If you have staff with underlying issues or conditions who are being deployed for a year without coming home for months, it’s worth considering the duration and level of separation. We see psychological issues particularly in students or NGO workers sent into a genocide with no support.”

Make sure visas are up to date

“Companies sometimes assume HR would sort visas while HR thought the company would do it. Don’t forget that visas might be needed for exiting a country as well as entering it.”

10 Have a strong risk management strategy

“Most companies approach risk management in a fragmented way. They may get HR to ensure that housing is OK or the travel company to sort out the employee’s car, but everything is in its silo. Companies need to find a way to link this together in a holistic way.” 

Leigh Burns is general manager of sales and marketing (northern Europe) at International SOS

Find out more about how you can protect employees abroad at


About author

Christian Koch

Christian Koch

Alongside his work for Director, Christian has written features for the Evening Standard, The Guardian, Sunday Times Style, The Independent, Q, Cosmopolitan, Stylist, ShortList and Glamour in an eclectic career which has seen him interview everybody from Mariah Carey to Michael Douglas through to Richard Branson with newspaper assignments including reporting on the Japanese tsunami and living with an Italian cult.

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