POSTED: October 10 2019
Avoiding overseas failure.

Avoiding overseas failure.

Four in ten international assignments are judged to be a failure. And yet the number of overseas assignments continues to rise. Global companies are under considerable pressure to determine what makes a successful overseas assignment and to understand why they so often fail. Dr. Phil Sharples, Chief Medical Officer, Global Solutions, UnitedHealthcare Global and international expert gives his 5 tips to ensure success.


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

An overseas assignment can be a very exciting prospect. The opportunity to work with new colleagues in a different country can be the highlight of one’s career. Yet it is estimated that nearly 40% of expat assignments fail[1], with family issues and lack of support in the host country often cited as the reasons.  The same things that make a trip abroad exciting – new job, new home, and new culture – are often the very things that make an assignment stressful. When your assignment includes your partner or children, the stress can be compounded.

Employers play a critical role in ensuring families and individuals have the best chance of adapting to their new environment. There are a few practical steps employers can take before and during an assignment to help employees succeed.

Medical screening

Medical screenings help put families at ease, providing vital reassurances that allow individuals and families to focus on other aspects of moving abroad without having to worry about their health. Employers should facilitate these screenings before an employee leaves his or her home country. It is easier to address health concerns in a familiar environment, with well-known care providers, than in a new setting.

UnitedHealthcare Global’s Virtual Health Assessment programme quickly screens employees and their families before leaving for their new home country. Most expats are identified as a low health risk and can embark on their assignment with minimal delay. Where risks are identified, advice is given on proactive ways to manage the risks and care teams develop a mitigation plan for both the employer and the employee.


Employers can also play an important role in educating their employees about the health care system in their new country. There will very likely be different rules and restrictions about payment and coverage, examinations, vaccinations and check-ups. It’s better to have these processes clarified in advance, instead of having an employee navigate an unknown health care system while dealing with a medical issue.

Ahead of an overseas assignment, it is recommended that employers set up meetings with representatives of their International Private Medical Insurer (IPMI) to explain how the plan works and where they can access the advice and services they may need when it comes to medical matters. This will ensure that any questions around their plan can be answered face-to-face.

Mental health

A person’s total health includes mind, body and spirit. That’s why it’s important that employees and their families have adequate mental health support on an overseas assignment and know how to access it. Language barriers, new schools, cultural differences and loneliness are all real challenges facing expats. UnitedHealthcare Global’s employee assistance programme offers employees and their families the option for face-to-face, online or telephonic counselling.

Keeping up a fitness routine and ensuring employees have a nutritious diet will help expats feel more positive. Employees should take advantage of wellness based applications, like Optum’s My Wellbeing. Users can provide feedback on how they’re feeling and participate in challenges with other colleagues such as a step counts and running challenges, helping them feel connected and stay healthy at the touch of a button.

Involve the children

Moving abroad can be particularly challenging for children who often feel nervous about starting a new school and leaving friends and family behind. To alleviate children’s fears’, parents should keep them informed and up–to-date about the progress of the move, and encourage them to be involved in the decision-making process.

Relish the adventure

Finally, families should try to resist the temptation to go home early, however challenging the first year might be. They should use this as an opportunity to fully immerse themselves in a new culture with rich and diverse experiences. If families are truly supported by their employer and IPMI provider, the assignment has the best possible chance of success.


Who is Dr. Phil Sharples?

DR PHIL SHARPLES has been with UnitedHealthcare Global Medical since 2006 and is responsible for the clinical care delivery to UnitedHealthcare Global Medical clients.

He is responsible for healthcare governance and clinical excellence working closely with other clinical functions in UnitedHealthcare Global in order to deliver quality healthcare solutions to clients.

Prior to joining UnitedHealthcare Global, he has worked internationally for a substantial part of his professional career. Initially, with the British Army serving abroad in Germany and Hong Kong, then worked as a senior partner in a NHS General Practice in London furthering his interest in Occupational Health and Travel Medicine. He then gained valuable oil and gas industry experience with Chevron as part of their international medical team with assignments in Nigeria and Kazakhstan before joining UnitedHealthcare Global.

Phil has a proactive involvement in the business development of the company and is a member of the International Association of Oil & Gas producers / The International Petroleum Industry Environmental Conservation Association Health Sub Committee and has helped to define industry health guidelines. Phil is also a regular member of the Society for Petroleum Engineers Health, Safety, Security, Environment, and Social Responsibility International Conference Health sub-committee. Phil has a keen interest in professional development of healthcare practitioners and serves on the Executive Committee of the Faculty of Remote and Rural Healthcare launched by the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.