Expats who moved abroad for work-related reasons seem to have two key pain points in common — they are considering returning earlier than expected and don’t feel at home abroad. This article explores data findings from the recently released Expat Insider 2019 Business Edition and provides expertise on the matter from a leading expat transition coach and author, Katia Vlachos.
The Data Findings
The Expat Insider 2019 Business Edition indicates that close to a quarter (21%) of foreign assignees and relocating spouses (22%), and an exact quarter of international hires (25%) are considering an early return, with loneliness being the top reason for all three expat types. Furthermore, a combined 40% of foreign assignees don’t feel at home abroad yet or don’t think they ever will — 44% of relocating spouses and 41% of international hires feel the same way. These are quite notable shares. The survey findings are based on the Expat Insider, one of the world’s largest and most comprehensive surveys on life abroad — 20,259 respondents participated in 2019.
The Expert Insights
Katia Vlachos, a cross-cultural adaptation writer, expat coach, and the author of A Great Move: Surviving and Thriving in Your Expat Assignment, says the two sets of data findings — about loneliness and not feeling at home — are closely linked.
“In my research, I have found that most people’s concepts of home fall primarily into one of three dimensions: home as a place, home as people, or home as a feeling. For expats, “home as a place” becomes progressively less relevant and “home as people” gains importance. Having a circle of friends, a “tribe”, becomes a key element of feeling at home. Given that, it’s no surprise that when they are having a difficult time getting integrated socially, and thus feel lonely, they don’t feel at home.”
According to her, too many expats move without taking the time to reflect on what they (and their partners and families) need to feel at home. Therefore, she says it’s not surprising that they struggle once they have landed in their new location, because they usually are too busy to think or do anything about it. “Assignees have to hit the ground running and prove themselves at work, and their partners either have to work as well or are consumed with building their new support system from scratch, with minimal help. If you start the expat journey knowing that you need to create your new home by focusing on people, you can take action in advance of your move to lay the foundation for that home and not end up feeling so isolated and lonely. The key is to anticipate your needs, be proactive in creating home, and asking for the resources you need."
So, based on this data, should employers be concerned? According to Katia, they absolutely should. She says an early return, effectively the end of the assignment, is another way of saying assignment failure. According to her, besides the direct financial costs to employers, assignment failure has many indirect costs, including talent loss.
“When an assignment is terminated early, the assignee often has to repatriate without a new position or support for their reintegration. This unsurprisingly leads to frustration and can ultimately lead to the decision to leave the company. When repatriated employees leave, their organizations lose the skills and knowledge they have acquired through their foreign experience. Other indirect company costs include potential damage to the business, costs of replacement, and low employee morale,” she explains.
Furthermore, for the expat and their family, a failed assignment often is more than a career setback, says Katia. “It can cause significant emotional stress, reduced self-esteem, and family tensions, even potentially leading to damaged relationships, substance abuse, or depression. These personal issues can also turn into company costs through lower employee performance and productivity, or the unwillingness of colleagues to accept an expatriate assignment themselves."
The Expert Advice to Employers
So, what then can employers do to help expat employees who are considering an early return? Katia says employers should ideally provide support before expats get to the point where they consider returning.
“Rather than providing lump-sums, it would help if organizations worked with assignees and their families in advance of the actual move to identify what kind of support they need to settle into the new location. Needs vary by individual, so doing this would allow for targeted, personalized support.”
As an expert in the field, she explains why coaching is the best option for expat employees whom the employer knows are considering to return early: “Coaches can identify the root causes of dissatisfaction and help the assignee, the partner, or both step back and assess the pluses and minuses of ending the assignment early. If the assignee is already in difficulty and considering an early return, it helps to have honest conversations about the challenges and needs of the whole family.”
Katia states that another key element of coaching is exploring concepts of home for everyone and what it will take to realize them. She explains: “Often, the coach will find that the concept of home and how to create it has not been a focus of the support the expats have received so far. Once concepts of home have been clarified, the kinds of support and resources that will help them to create that home in the new location become much clearer. These could include connecting them to local mentors, support networks, and expat organizations, as well as providing introductions to local professional networks and other kinds of support.”
About the Expert: Katia Vlachos, an expat transition coach and author, holds a master’s degree from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a PhD from the RAND Corporation. She has lived in seven countries. Katia helps expatriates cope with many kinds of transitions, including international relocation, career changes, reinvention and identity issues, as well as relationship challenges and breakdowns which result from a mobile lifestyle. She has written, among others, for the Harvard Business Review, Huffington Post, and Thrive Global.
About the Expat Insider 2019 Business Edition: The InterNations Expat Insider is one of the world’s largest surveys on life abroad — 20,259 expats took part. The Expat Insider 2019 Business Edition focuses specifically on global employees and their spouses — 10% of respondents were foreign assignees, 23% were international hires, and 7% were relocating spouses. Through detailed results, infographics, and expat quotes, the report provides insights that can assist global mobility and HR professionals in understanding the needs of expat employees better.