In these 29 years abroad, I have seen dozens of families struggling to settle down in their new assignment. I have come to realize that the role the company decides to take to support the expat family in this phase can make the difference between a smooth adaptation and a thorny one.
It is well known that an assignment abroad is much more likely to be successful if the whole family of the assignee is happy throughout the period.
The first months are crucial for the expat family to establish a good relationship with the host country. Deep culture shock at the beginning can seriously hinder the happiness of one or more expat family members.
Let’s see what happens when the expat family relocates:
There are precise issues the expat family must face upon relocation. These include
* The need of the expat family for a functional environment where to thrive. Upon arrival, the expat family must quickly build a comfortable routine; this can prove quite challenging in a completely foreign environment;
* Differences in roles within the expat family, which can create frustrations and misunderstanding. Each family member is focused on his own adaptation, and may overlook the efforts of other members to make things work, thus generating more frustration
* The position each family member has in the new country: some have an easy start because they cover a precise role, like working in an office, going to school, etc. Others have to strive to find their own meaningful role in the new scenario, and this takes a lot of energy;
* An overall loss of family identity: while each member mourns what she has lost by leaving the previous country (friends, a home, a routine, etc.), there is also an overall loss of family identity. No one in the new place knows the story the family carries within itself. This lack of “past” can weigh heavily and differently on each member.
How the family copes during the adaptation process
How and how fast the expat family adapts to the new environment depends on a variety of factors, like previous experiences, age of the family members, personal situation, country situation and much more.
The more the expat family feels supported, however, the more likely it will be they reach a good adaptation point fast and without deep suffering.
Each family member will naturally recognize the form of support that suits them best, and turn to it.
Forms of initial support can be found within and outside the expat family, and may include a positive and encouraging mother, a highly motivated father, a successful sister, a colleague, friends at school, a circle of expats, etc.
The role of the company
In my experience, the happiest relocations happen when the expat family feels adequately supported by the company.
Such support can be expressed in more or less tangible ways. I have seen companies being 100% present both upon arrival and all through the assignment and others that do not even take into account the basic issues an expat family strives on (for instance the matching of the working contract with the school calendar, or specific health issues of one or more family members).
Good practices every company or organization should implement
Here are some of the good practices that I have seen companies satisfactorily applying to ease the burden of the first period of the expat family in the new country:
- Focusing is on the arrival of the whole family, not only on the assignee. This translates into positive attitudes that can include regularly inquiring about the family well-being, volunteering time to help with practical stuff, offering the assignee to take some time off during the week to help the family;
- Appointing a specific person to whom the family can turn to in case of immediate need. Upon arrival, there are so many things to familiarize with (how to pay a bill, where and when to drive on specific avenues, what is behind the cultural behaviors that can be so disconcerting at the beginning). Having a specific person to turn to when the fog needs to be cleared can prove invaluable;
- Organizing events that involve the whole family. Social events that include all family members contribute to reinforce the sense of belonging the company provides, and that is so much needed at the beginning in a new country.
- Being present yet discreet. Depending on the culture the expat family comes from, they might not appreciate too much intrusion in their new routine. A company should find a balance between offering support and letting the family experiment and feel free to turn to them when it is really needed.
- Including a good health insurance package for the whole family, and help them sort out the bureaucracy when needed. Getting sick in a foreign country can prove very stressful, and it is at this point that the expat family needs to be fully supported.
I would love to hear your experience and find out what you think the level of commitment of the company should be in a foreign assignment. Relocation always brings within itself a stressful component. Anything that can be implemented to contain the difficulties at the beginning is worth to be discussed.
Claudia Landini (Claudiaexpat)