4 Challenges that Put Assignment Success and Talent Retention at Risk

What are some of the biggest challenges that expats and their partners face when moving abroad for work, and how can employers support them to overcome these challenges? Katia Vlachos is an Expat Transition Coach and Author. Through her research and work with expats, she has identified four key challenges that put assignment success and international talent retention at risk:  

  1. Adapting to a new environment and culture: Most people go through predictable stages of transition — honeymoon, crisis, recovery and, eventually, adaptation. At the same time, adaptation experiences vary among individuals and even within families, due to different personalities, family situations, preparation, expectations, or assignment circumstances. Expats may have an easier time adjusting to a culture that fits well with their personality. Or having a supportive spouse who is already familiar with the new culture may speed up the adjustment. Conversely, the initial adjustment experience of a partner or child who feels like they had no say in a move may look more like the stages of grieving (crisis) than a honeymoon. It’s important to acknowledge and allow for this grieving process to happen in order to reach adjustment.

  2. Building a new support system and social network: Surveys show that expats consider being away from their support network as one of the most difficult aspects of transition to life abroad. They leave behind their support system — their friends and family, but also the whole setup of people, services and institutions that allow them to function — so they need to rebuild a new one from scratch, often without significant support. That takes time and, in the meantime, lack of good support can lead to increased frustration, stress, and feelings of isolation.

  3. Recovering and rebuilding identity: This is a critical challenge for expat partners. Around 70% of foreign assignees move with a partner or spouse. Again, surveys show that a large majority of those partners, while employed before the assignment, often end up not working or underemployed in the new location. 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, on top of the many challenges of building a life in a new country. 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. Other expat partner challenges include financial dependence, strained relationships, and mental health issues. And these in addition to the many practical challenges, such as difficulties obtaining a working visa or permit, entering an unfamiliar job market or lacking the language skills necessary to work in the new market.

  4. Coping with mental health issues: Mental health problems such as anxiety and depression are increasingly prevalent among expats and their families, even though they often go unacknowledged. The absence of a support network, at least initially, is a key reason why expats are 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 issues. 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. In addition to that, expats may have trouble navigating an unfamiliar health system to get the support they need.

If these challenges go unaddressed, they can have a negative impact on not only the employee and their family, but the company too, with failed foreign assignments and the loss of international talent. Vlachos outlines the types of support that employers and mobility professionals can provide to overcome these challenges.

What Employers Can Offer to Address the Challenges

  • To help with adjustment: Cross-cultural training that includes an understanding of the adjustment process, as well as access to coaching, training, and qualified therapists.

  • To help build a new support system: Information on the local healthcare system, a list of doctors who speak the native languages of expats, childcare options, and an introduction to expat networks.

  • To support expat partners who want to get back to work: Access to expert advice on legal frameworks and necessary documentation for working in the new location, career development assistance (for example, access to coaching, résumé/interview/presentations skills training, or an education allowance), and an introduction to relevant professional networks.

  • To help with mental health challenges: Access to qualified counselors or therapists, ideally speaking the native languages of expats.

Read the full Ask the Expert interview with Katia Vlachos and find out why employers need to take a holistic approach to the relocation and integration support they offer to foreign assignees and their partners.

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