The importance of supporting expats at every stage of relocation and return

Relocating staff can go through a huge amount of disruption when they accept an overseas assignment.  Most employers think about supporting the employee as they make the move but that’s only part of the picture.

The pre-departure stage and the period around returning and readjusting to the UK can be just as disruptive and stressful. Each stage can have a significant impact on emotional and mental health for staff and their families. We need to be thinking about the support our employees need both in terms of logistical practical help and for their emotional wellbeing.

Thinking holistically about wellbeing supports productivity at every stage

It is in everyone’s interests that staff settle well in a new location and become productive as quickly as possible. It is just as important pre-departure and when staff return that they are supported and remain productive. For all parties to get the most from international assignments it is essential that we think holistically about the mental and emotional, as well as the physical health, at each stage.

The emotional journey 

It’s common for employees to experience a whole range of emotions as they accept a position, relocate and then return afterwards. There may be initial anxiety, then a ‘honeymoon’ period of excitement, which can be followed by anger and disillusionment if things aren’t as they expected or imagined. Once employees arrive in the new country they may experience an initial culture shock before they accept the differences and move into an adjustment phase. As an assignment draws to a close they may experience anxiety about their return and go through a second culture shock phase as they readjust to being back in the UK.

Considering families

Families and dependants of an employee may also go through a huge range of emotions. The challenges they face can be quite different from those of the employee themselves and may feel exaggerated as they may feel less disconnected from the support their partner’s employer offers.  FiDi, a global alliance of professional international moving and relocation companies, include domestic difficulties and lack of support in its top five reasons why expat assignments fail, and this illustrates how critical it is that we offer families the same levels of support as staff at every stage.

Coming home can be just as challenging

Reintegration has traditionally been given little thought but it’s key and can be a surprisingly problematic time. Support for employees who are preparing for a move, and those who are returning, is just as critical and is often overlooked. Indeed, recent research from the Canadian Employee Relocation Council (CERC) found that only 30%* of organisations currently provide repatriation support. The good news is that support is available for employers who want to make sure they have everything in place to look after their returning employees, including specialist employee assistance programmes. It’s worth investigating the relevant options so valuable and experienced staff aren’t lost when they return.

What can employers do?

Employers should support all stages and also look at what can be done preventatively to avoid issues before they occur. These might include providing counselling and encouraging participation in local support networks, or putting staff in touch with others who have had experience of international relocation.

It’s important that employees, especially those prepared to make the sacrifices needed to relocate, feel they are being cared for. With the distances involved with working overseas, employee engagement is more difficult. Promoting both preventative measures and putting support in place to help them at every stage demonstrates a company’s care toward its staff and plays an integral role in increasing employee engagement and also makes good business sense as it supports productivity throughout all the stages of an overseas assignment.

Sarah Dennis, head of international, The Health Insurance Group

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