“The Availability (or Lack) of Emotional Support can Make (or Break) a Foreign Assignment”

Katia Vlachos, Expat Transition Coach and Author, answers seven questions about why employers need to take a holistic approach to the relocation and integration support they offer to foreign assignees and their partners.

1. You help expats to feel at home wherever they are. How do you do this?

Expats need to be able to create home wherever they go — it’s an essential part of the transition process. The concept of home shapes the way expats approach the different phases of an international move and cope with adjustment challenges. While everyone's concept of home is unique, I find it helps to categorize concepts into three broad themes:

  • Home as place: The physical dimension of home, for example, the country, city, neighborhood, house or apartment where expats grew up.

  • Home as feeling: A sense of familiarity, comfort, safety or belonging expats experience when they feel at home.

  • Home as people: The core relationships in their lives that make them feel at home, for example, family, close friends, and their ‘tribe’.

A deep understanding of the concept(s) of home — as well as those of their partner and family, if they’re not moving alone — helps expats make smooth transitions. This is why it’s one of my core missions to help my clients figure out what home means for them and then use that awareness to create home, consciously and with intention, wherever they are.

2. You state that with the right tools and support, any move abroad can be a great move. What do these tools and support entail?

Besides knowing their concept of home, following a systematic, step-by-step approach to the moving process is another key ‘tool’ for expats to make a successful move. In my book and in my coaching work, I take expats through a structured approach to every phase of the move, from deciding whether to move, to planning and preparing, making the move, and finally settling into the new location.

In each phase, there are key elements that set them up for success. For instance, when planning (if not already in the decision phase), they should consider the implications of the move for each area of their life — career, social circle, support system, personal development, well-being etc. That way expats anticipate potential challenges and consider what resources they and their family will need to cope. The next step is for them to line up those resources or request and negotiate with their employer. Even if expats don’t have a lot of time to spend on each phase of the move, this structure helps them to define priorities and an action plan.

3. What are some of the biggest challenges that expats that move abroad for work — as well as their partners — face?

Through my research and work with expats, I’ve identified four key challenges:

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

4. How can employers address these challenges?

Support that employers and mobility professionals can provide to help with the four challenges I mentioned, includes:

  • 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.

5. Employers often focus more on practical support, such as offering moving assistance, than personal support, such as providing access to local networking or socializing opportunities (findings from the Expat Insider 2018 Business Edition). How can employers strike the right balance between these two support types?

While practical support is essential in the case of an international move, the availability (or lack) of emotional support can make (or break) a foreign assignment. I’ve been a long-time advocate of encouraging employers to gain a deeper understanding of the experience and emotional challenges of expatriation. Focusing on the individuals who move — including the partner and children — and understanding exactly what they are dealing with, allows employers to tailor the resources and services that they offer to the needs of their assignees and find the right balance of practical and personal support that works for each particular case. The ideal outcome is personalized, customized support, which is becoming increasingly important as Millennials (with their distinct preference for hands-on, customized solutions and experiences) take over the global workforce.

6. What are the benefits of a holistic approach to relocation support?

Becoming aware of the challenges of leading a global life, both practical and emotional, and providing tailored, targeted support to everyone who moves benefits both individuals and organizations. For example, ‘family concerns’ are the top stated reason for the early return from a foreign assignment — or the failure thereof. The costs — financial, professional and personal — of failed assignments are high for assignees, their families, and employers.

When expats and their families get the support they need, they are able to cope more effectively with the challenges of transition and create the conditions for thriving in their new lives. With their partners and families adjusting smoothly, assignees are better able to focus on work and perform in their new positions. This increases the odds of a successful assignment and an engaged, productive employee.

7. What final words of wisdom do you have for global mobility and HR managers that manage global talent?

Focus on the whole family — not just the assignee. Seek to understand all aspects of their experience. Expand the range of available services to include resources for building a support network, dealing with career issues, and supporting the adjustment process in targeted ways. This does not mean bigger packages, but rather a more efficient and effective use of existing funds.

For example, an expat partner who wants to pursue their career abroad would be more likely to benefit from help with networking, career coaching, or support with understanding the local job market, rather than an introduction to local expat spouse coffee mornings, which may be part of the standard package. Providing foreign assignees and their families with the support they need not only helps everyone make a smoother transition, but it also allows them to hit the ground running and settle into their new positions at work faster. It’s a win-win.

Katia VlachosAbout the Expert: Katia Vlachos is a cross-cultural adaptation writer, expat coach, and the author of A Great Move: Surviving and Thriving in Your Expat Assignment. A researcher and policy analyst by training, she holds a master’s degree from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a Ph.D. from the RAND Corporation. She has lived in eight cities and seven countries — and on three continents. Katia helps expatriates cope with many kinds of transitions, including international relocations, 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.

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