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Stress & the Expatriate Employee

Ronald Schouten, MD, JD

The excitement and challenge of an overseas work assignment can be the high point of any career. These assignments may provide the expatriate employee with a career boost, increased income, and an opportunity to experience a new culture, meet new people, and view business in a broader context. The move to another country, like any other significant life change, is likely to cause significant stress for the expatriate employee and his or her family.

“Stress” is a term used to describe a vague combination of emotional and physical symptoms, as well as the cause of those symptoms. Its widespread use began in the 1960s when the physiologist Hans Selye used it to describe “the rate of wear and tear on the organism.” Thirty years later it is used to refer to everything from the emotions caused by a traffic jam to overwork leading to serious illness.
Since Selye introduced the concept, multiple researchers have studied the causes and effects of stress, often finding that positive, as well as negative, events can cause significant stress. For example, Holmes and Rahe found that a new job, a promotion, and marriage caused significant stress, as did the death of a family member, loss of a job, and other unpleasant life events.
Research in the field has shown that stress is a nonspecific response to events and that this response can have a number of emotional and physical consequences. Many researchers have looked at the relationship between stress and a wide range of medical problems including the common cold, depression, and even cancer.

In talking about stress, we often refer to “eustress” (normal stress) and distress, to differentiate between beneficial and destructive stress. On the beneficial side, we know that physical stress can stimulate bone growth, but excessive stress can cause bones to break. Intellectual and physical stress that comes with a heavy workload can increase the skills and capacity for hard work; in excess, it can lead to emotional and physical illness.

There is no question that an overseas assignment causes stress for the employee and his or her family, and that a fair amount of it is distress. The high percentage of expatriate employees who return without completing the assignment (some estimate up to 50%) can be attributed to the stress that comes with moving to a new job in a new culture. A high proportion of employees return from these assignments because of emotional difficulties encountered by themselves or their family members. These difficulties include anxiety, depression, and substance abuse problems, as well as general loneliness and dissatisfaction with life in the new country.

What can the expatriate employee and his or her family do to manage the stress inherent in these assignments to avoid the negative consequences of stress? These stress management measures can be divided into three parts: preparation, steps on arrival, and ongoing measures.

Preparation:

The most important steps in managing the stress of the overseas assignment begin before the employee ever leaves home, when the decision is made whether or not to accept the assignment, and as preparations are made for the move. They include the following:

  • Assessment of whether there is a good fit between the employee and the overseas assignment. This includes having a good match between the skill set required for the job, whether the job will provide sufficient challenge for the employee, and whether the employee’s personality is well suited to an overseas assignment. Assessments of fit, both from the skill and personality standpoints, are provided by employers in some cases, or can be obtained from consultants in the field.
  • Preparation of the employee and family members for entering the new culture. This includes language lessons and cultural education. Again, some employers provide this as part of the process of sending an employee abroad, but some do not. And in many cases, preparation is not provided for family members even if it is provided for the employee. Language courses and books on the new culture are worthwhile investments in the future success of the assignment, even if the employee has to fund these him or her self.
  • Determine what the employee and family members will do in the new country. In most cases, but not all, the expectations of the employee’s role in the new job are spelled out. Ambiguity of the role can lead to considerable distress, and it is best to have the specifics of the assignment and the expectations stated clearly to the extent possible. Perhaps just as important is clarification of what the spouse and children will do in the new country. While there are cultural obstacles to women in the workforce in some countries, it is best to know that in advance so that other plans can be made to keep the spouse active and interested. Generally speaking, it is best for spouses to work or engage in other productive activities outside the home in the new country. Similarly, plans should be made for both the educational and social needs of the employee’s children.
  • Determine what social networks will be available to provide support to the employee and his or her family members. Religious organizations, social groups for expatriates, newcomers to communities, or activities structures around other social connections or interests and all provide valuable outlets for the stress associated with adjustment to a new community and culture.
  • Know how and from whom you and your family will be getting your health care

On Arrival

  • Be prepared for the physical and emotional strain of the move. Physical and emotional exhaustion are common for the entire family after a long trip, changing time zones, and dealing with unfamiliar locations and signs. Tempers are likely to be short at times; tolerance and understanding of what the entire family is going through are critical. Humor is a great ally during times of stress; joking about the stresses and strains of the transition should be encouraged.
  • Homesickness, which strikes most expatriates at some point, may occur early or late. Make your home environment as familiar as possible; unpack cherished items from home early in the process. Follow up on the social support contacts you planned before you left home.
  • Familiarize yourself with the new environment, including your new neighbors, as quickly as possible.
  • Follow up on arrangements for the new activities planned for the entire family before you left home.
  • Check in with your health care providers

Managing in the Long Run

Once the excitement of the move is over, and the entire family has settled in, there will be stresses associated with longer term adjustment as the assignment goes forward. Different educational systems, cultural and legal requirements, and food items will all provide challenges to the health and stability of the family. The steps outlined above, along with the following, can all help you and your family manage the stress of your time abroad.

  • Stay in touch with news and events at home.
  • Talk to each other. Families that can share the ups and downs of daily life tend to weather the downs more easily, and enjoys the ups, more than families in which communications are limited.
  • Be aware of the emotional strains that develop over time, and the possibility that emotional or physical symptoms may develop that need assessment and treatment. Watch out for each other, and encourage family members to get help when stress seems to be interfering with their daily function.

As we pointed out at the beginning, the overseas assignment can be a high point for the employee and his or her family. It can also be an enormous emotional and physical challenge that can be mastered through active planning and efforts to both shape the new environment and become part of it. Enjoy the new assignment. When in doubt, contact us. We’re here to help.