HR’s obligations to expatriates don’t end once they relocate abroad. Ongoing effort is required to support the family throughout the overseas assignment.
Trailing spouses constantly strive for emotional homeostasis: a delicate balancing act between appreciating what they’ve gained through expat life and mourning what they’ve sacrificed. Yvonne McNulty, author of “The Trailing Spouse Survey,” calls expatriation “a gains and losses event for the trailing spouse,” noting that sponsoring organizations can help offset the losses by recognizing the need for the spouse’s “intrinsic fulfillment.” These emotional needs can be satisfied through educational and club membership allowances, as well as the following initiatives:
Ongoing Post-Arrival Support
Settling-in assistance is invaluable to spouses on arrival in a foreign location. An orientation to the city and an introduction to the basics of daily living (shopping, healthcare, transportation, etc.) are extremely helpful in bringing some order to the chaos of an international relocation. Unfortunately, most spouses are left to fend for themselves once the urgency of the initial few weeks has passed.
Many families are resourceful enough to handle subsequent issues as they arise. Others struggle. Those in difficult locations, or who haven’t yet acquired the savvy that comes from multiple international relocations, may falter without additional support. Lack of language fluency only compounds feelings of isolation and vulnerability. “I latched onto a driver – one that could speak English,” confesses Mandy, an expat wife living in Argentina. “He became my lifeline and helped me get sorted.”
Expatriate Mentoring/Support Groups
The establishment of a formal mentoring program for spouses indicates that the spouse’s satisfaction in the expatriate community is important to the firm. If no such plan exists, finding a telephone/email buddy for the trailing spouse prior to moving overseas provides a good introduction to expatriate life. Once in-country, actively promoting expat relationships – through company-organized “meet & greet” events, for example – helps the newcomer build a supportive social network.
This support becomes particularly critical when expat wives enter the “crisis” stage of culture shock. Once the excitement and novelty of the new situation subsides, spouses may begin to exhibit various symptoms as they wrestle with the disorientation and anxiety of adjusting to a foreign culture. At this point, a friendly veteran is lifesaver.
Betty Jane Punnett, author of “Towards Effective Management of Expatriate Spouses,” writes that spousal support groups should convene regularly “to evaluate their progress and take appropriate steps to ensure recovery and adjustment.” Mandy couldn’t agree more. “It might be good to meet regularly once a week for a few months, then follow up every month,” she writes in a February 2008 email. “It really helps to know you’re not alone.”
Assistance Building Other Support Networks
Black and Gregersen found that forming friendships with local women improves the adjustment of expat wives, and decreases the odds of expatriate failure and early return. Therefore, they suggest in “The Other Half of the Picture: Antecedents of Spouse Cross-Cultural Adjustment,” helping spouses establish those relationships makes good economic sense.
The spouse’s major source of emotional support – her partner – is not always available. The long hours and heavy travel schedule of the typical expatriate manager mean that the accompanying spouse often functions as a single parent. Although the load may be lightened by live-in domestic help, these frequent separations place an enormous strain on the marriage and on the family as a whole.
Yvonne McNulty writes that time should be set aside immediately after the move abroad, so that the family can begin the adjustment process together. This strategy could pay off in the long run, since “extensive periods of work-related travel and long hours of overtime during an assignment were identified as major factors impeding a trailing spouse’s adjustment to the host country.”
Annual Home Leave
In trying economic times, a yearly trip back home may be viewed by HR as a frivolous expenditure. Far from it: home leave gives the expat spouse a chance to recharge her batteries, ground the children in their home culture, maintain important relationships, handle necessary administrative tasks, and gain some much-needed perspective on the changes wrought by living abroad. The advantages – for the expat employee as well as the family – certainly compensate for the expense.
Acknowledgment of the Trailing Spouse and Family
The studies mentioned here are unanimous in their conclusions that the family’s sacrifices in support of the expatriate employee need to be acknowledged. “Thank [the spouse] publicly, privately, and often,” writes Anne P. Copeland, in the “Many Women Many Voices” Study of Accompanying Spouses Around the World, conducted by The Interchange Institute and commissioned by Prudential Financial.
The rewards of living as an expat are many. So too are the hardships. For the spouse, a successful expatriate assignment is one in which the gains outweigh the losses. HR can do its part to ensure a positive outcome by meeting the spouse’s need for emotional support during the assignment. In nurturing the accompanying spouse, the sponsoring organization can reap the benefits of a happy and adjusted family and a more effective expatriate employee.