Many have written about challenges expats face and elements of support, but there are significant missed opportunities. To explore them, think about the relocation process as consisting of four key phases: decision-making, planning and preparation, moving, and settling into the new location. Traditionally, relocation support focuses largely on the two middle phases — preparation and moving — and includes organizing the physical move, help with immigration procedures and work permits, support with finding accommodation and schooling, and perhaps some cross-cultural or language training.
However, these practical aspects are not the whole story. Relocation is an emotional process as much as it is a logistical one. Coping with the emotional challenges of an international move requires as much support as coping with the logistics. The right emotional support can make or break an assignment, and organizations do not currently provide enough of it.
An in-depth understanding of the emotional challenges expats face is key to providing the right kind of support. Based on my work and personal experience, here are four major emotional challenges along with the types of support HR managers can offer.
Emotional Challenge #1: Adapting to a New Environment and Culture
Most people go through predictable stages of transition: honeymoon, crisis, recovery and, eventually, adjustment — with specific “symptoms” that go with each stage. At the same time, adaptation experiences vary widely (in magnitude, duration or sequence of stages) among individuals and even within families, due to differences in personality, family situations, preparation, expectations or assignment circumstances.
People may have an easier time adjusting to a culture that fits better with their personality or because they have a supportive spouse who is already familiar with the new culture. Conversely, a partner or child who feels like he or she had no say in a move may go through an initial process that looks more like the stages of grieving (crisis) than a honeymoon. It’s important to acknowledge and allow the grieving to happen in order to move on to adjustment.
A good first step is offering extensive cross-cultural training that includes an explanation of the adjustment process. Much of this kind of training is relatively brief and a one-time event, usually offered before expats move. It would help to offer follow-up training, allowing for input from the expats and adaptation to their specific needs. For example, if an expat hates cooking and has never cooked a meal, a visit to the local spice markets might not be what she most needs to adjust to her new home.
It would also help to proactively provide access to a curated list of resources, such as coaches, trainers and therapists for the expat to have available in case he or she needs that support along the way.
Emotional Challenge #2: Building a Support System and Social Integration
In a 2017 survey by global health care provider AXA, 40% of respondents considered being away from their support network one of the most difficult aspects of transitioning to life abroad. Expats leave behind their support system — their friends and family but also the whole setup of people, services and institutions that enable them to function (from child care and health care to recreational activities and a social network). They need to build a new one from scratch, often without significant support. This process takes time and, in the meantime, lack of good support can lead to increased frustration, stress and feelings of isolation. Making friends and becoming connected socially are among the top concerns of people who relocate.
It’s important to provide practical assistance with setting up an initial support system in the planning phase of a move. What does this support look like?
- Information on the local health care system, including a list of providers and doctors who speak the expat’s native language.
- Help identifying appropriate child care options.
- Help connecting with colleagues who have previously moved to their destination or who are still there.
- An introduction to expat networks or other communities where expats and their families will naturally feel connected and supported.
Emotional Challenge #3: Recovering and Rebuilding Identity
Around 70% of expat assignees move with a partner or spouse. Expat couples have different arrangements, or “models,” when it comes to how they pursue their respective careers.
The traditional expat model assumes one main earner — the expat worker — with a non-working spouse (some call them “trailing” spouses) and children. However, family structures are changing, and dual-career couples are becoming much more common. These families are on an expat path where both partners are committed to pursue their careers.
But pursuing two careers at the same time — or even taking turns doing so — is challenging. Whatever the original arrangement of the couple, what often happens is that one partner has to take a step back, at least temporarily, to make the expat path possible. Surveys show that a large majority of expat partners, while employed before the assignment, often end up not working or underemployed in the new location.
A large proportion of those partners are highly accomplished professionals. Going from a career with an established social and support network to being a stay-at-home spouse and/or parent is a big adjustment, piled on top of the many other challenges of building a life in a new country. As I myself have experienced, expat partners often feel lost and struggle to redefine their roles, rebuild their self-esteem, recover a sense of purpose and create new identities for themselves.
For partners who want to continue working or go back to work after a short break, reestablishing credentials and recreating a professional network takes time. In the meantime, their self-esteem suffers, and resentment may build up, which strains the relationship or the partner’s mental health — or both.
Career-related resources and support services may include:
- Help clarifying local legal frameworks and the documentation necessary for working in the new location (e.g., language fluency requirements and requirements for setting up a business).
- Help understanding the cultural nuances of the local job market.
- Access to skill development resources, such as resume, interview and presentation skills training or a continuing education allowance.
- Help connecting to relevant professional networks.
The deeper work of recovering their sense of identity and purpose as well as considering possible options for their future may require career counseling and coaching. Coaches can not only help expat partners explore what they need to lead a meaningful life but also play the role of accountability partner to help them turn their ideas into reality.
Expat Challenge #4: Coping With Mental Health Issues
The final emotional challenge is an important one that often goes unacknowledged, including by expats themselves. Mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression, are increasingly prevalent among expats and their families. In a 2016 survey by Aetna, just 6% of expats were concerned about mental health issues before relocating, but during the two years preceding the survey, mental health claims in Europe increased by 33%, followed by similar increases in the Middle East, Africa, the Americas and southeast Asia.
The absence of a support network, at least initially, makes expats more susceptible to these conditions. Often, the stresses of relocation and adjustment overlap with other challenges, creating a perfect storm that contributes to the development of mental health problems. An expat spouse may have just had a baby and be struggling with postpartum depression around the time that culture shock hits. The family’s teenage son may have trouble integrating into his new high school, in addition to missing his friends and family back home — on top of going through puberty. Finally, expats may have trouble navigating an unfamiliar mental health system to find the support they need.
Ideally, the kinds of support previously described will help prevent expats and families from feeling overwhelmed, anxious or depressed and therefore needing mental health support. If not, employee assistance programs focused on general well-being can help prevent issues or address them before they escalate. Access to counseling or therapy with a qualified professional who speaks the expat’s language is also important. For example, have a database of available resources before, during and especially after the move.
Overall, raising awareness about mental health and other challenges, as well as the support available for them, should help make it less of a taboo issue — both for those facing it and those around them.