Families adjust better to expatriate life with support from HR

HR’s obligations to expatriates don’t end once they relocate abroad. Ongoing effort is required to support the family throughout the overseas assignment.

Families adjust better to expatriate life with support from HRTrailing 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.

This article — one of the first things I wrote when I returned to writing after many years away — was originally posted on Suite 101. As Suite is currently undergoing an article purge, I’ll be reasserting my copyright by posting here whatever works of mine its editors decide to toss out.

This article originally appeared on Suite101.com on May 27, 2010 © Maria Foley.


About Maria

I'm a Canadian repatriate, former expat spouse, mother to two TCKs (and one yellow Lab), mentor to new immigrants, writer, reader, world traveller (grounded for now). I write about expat/repat issues and am still trying to figure out my place in the world.
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13 Responses to Families adjust better to expatriate life with support from HR

  1. Naomi says:

    Reading about HR responsibilities always bring a little tear to my eye. It IS so important and so under-utilized. Great article, Maria.

  2. Tony says:

    Yes, HR is there and it should be taken advantage of. In my experience, upon relocation the stress is so much that couples lose their marbles and just ignore HR and prefer to concentrate on what awaits them. Great post!

  3. Judy says:

    Thanks so much for reposting this article. As you know, I first “found” you through the articles you’d written on Suite 101 and they need to be saved. Unfortunately too many companies view accompanying families purely as an expense, rather than a valuable support system for their employee. This message needs to be repeated. Loud and often.

  4. Our primary support came not so much from my husband’s employer, but our international school. When we first arrived in the Netherlands, we were blessed with several days of orientation. It wasn’t only for incoming students; parents had their own ‘schedule of meetings’ to attend, and we were teamed up with an expat mentor to help answer other questions as they came up. The school also sponsored a weekly info and social session put on by veteran expat parents. It was a life-saver, providing all of the info you mention in your article as well as being a place to make social contacts, some of whom eventually became friends. Because I knew I had knowledgeable contacts, I felt better in the role of helping our family settle in. Can easily see how it made all the difference in the world.

    • Maria says:

      What a fantastic school. One of the class moms called me when we first arrived in Singapore and took me out for coffee, but as far as I know, that was on her own initiative. Wouldn’t it be great if all international schools were like yours?

  5. Charity says:

    Does anyone know of an online support group for spouses with husbands constantly travelling? I’m a quasi-expat. My husband has started a business in South America (his homeland) and we visit for months on end, but even when we’re in the US, he’s off from one country to another. My friends with their 9-5 working husbands and settled white-picket fence houses don’t understand the emotional upheaval I am facing each week or month my husband is gone, while still maintaining the bi-cultural home we’ve created for the sake of our children. Is there an online group that can offer assistance? I’m at my wits’ end!!

    • Maria says:

      A group that just started recently has been holding virtual “coffee mornings” for expat (and quasi-expat) partners. I haven’t been able to make it yet, but I’m hearing lots of good feedback from others. The last session was all about what expat life does to relationships. You can check out the group on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/groups/expatonlinecoffee/ and see if it’s something you’d be interested in. Sometimes just knowing someone out there understands what you’re going through can help you make it through the day. Hang in there!

  6. Peter says:


    Great article! I’m experiencing similar problems with. A colleague of mine at this moment. He and his family moved to Siingapore 3 weeks ago. Initially I told him to stay at home and help the family settle in. Kids are having a great time, joined the Dutch international school and already made friends. The husband is slowly starting to spend more time at work an his wife is left home alone. The other day she had a bit of a breakdown in the supermarket as she could not find what she was looking for. Although I’m not HR, frankly we don’t really have one, I’m taking up the responsibility of trying to help them get settled. Any advice? I’m already checking up on them regularly and giving them pointers on where to find what and what else to do….


    • Maria says:

      It’s a sad story but not an uncommon one, unfortunately. The good thing is there’s a very large expat community in Singapore, full of people who know the ropes and understand what it’s like to be overwhelmed. I think her best bet would be to try making connections within the network. If the kids are at the Dutch school, that’s a perfect place to start — parents of kids at international schools are generally very welcoming of newcomers. Getting practical advice (or sometimes just knowing that someone gets what she’s going through) can go a long way toward making those first weeks easier.

  7. Yvonne says:

    Peter, I lived in Singapore for 6 years. I’m Yvonne, author of ‘The Trailings Spouse Report’ refereed to in this article. I suggest your friends wife join American Women’s Association immediately. They take 49% of their membership from non-US citizens. I was a member of AWA for 7 years, and she can join all their activities and make friends. AWA is the BEST spouse support network in Singapore – very professional and everyone is an expat wife. Please get her to join. ANZA also has a group, smaller, but also good. Get her to also see the counselor at the Dutch school – not because she’s crazy but because school counsellors see this all the time among new families – and they know how to help connect mums with other mums. I am now living in Shanghai – and its much tougher up here. I had my moment in the Carre Four a few months ago when a local Chinese lady promptly starting taking all the groceries out of my trolley to see what I was buying – and I just freaked out. So, we’ve all been there – even me at 14 years as an expat wife and counting. hang in there!

  8. Pamela says:


    I am in the middle of a Masters degree in Human Resource Management and was so glad to see a posting of this type regarding HR’s role in expatriation and reentry. Thank you for the insight and know that part of our course is focused upon just this type of situation. Having been an Army brat when I was young, I lived in many places all over the world and think that you can never get enough support from friends and “family” (blood or not!) that you gain in the process of gaining cultural diversity. Thank you again for your thoughts and God bless you in your future endeavors!

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