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The corporate workplace is changing. International assignments are now viewed as part of the job description for a broader swath of employees working for global corporations.
International relocations create unique opportunities for the expatriate employee but can also create challenges for that employee’s spouse. These “trailing spouses” can be riddled with anxiety over everything from learning a new language to adjusting to a new culture. And if children are involved, things can get even more stressful.
Most experts believe that cultural training is essential to help the transition.
“Cultural training [is needed] before the assignment so the spouse knows exactly what to expect in [the new] country,” explained Val Gascoyne, managing director of U.K.-based Time Relocation. “An unhappy spouse and children are major factors in failed assignments, so this is a wise investment against the cost of early repatriation.”
Human resources and global-mobility departments can help smooth the transition for everyone involved, according to experts who work in the field. Too often, HR departments take a narrow focus when setting up support programs for the relocated employee, failing to provide adequate support services to his or her family. The spouse may begin to feel isolated, which could lead to conflict within the marriage and family and, sometimes, failure in the overseas assignment.
“One of the most common complaints we hear from partners is that the companies who are responsible for relocating them expect a great deal of them in the relocation process yet often barely acknowledge their existence,” said Evelyn Simpson, who with Louise Wiles started the consultancy Thriving Abroad, based in the U.K. “Companies are placing higher priority on employee engagement in the talent management process, but in an international relocation, extending engagement to the partner can make a difference, too.”
Statistically, families’ inability to adapt to the new environment is the largest cause of assignment failure, Simpson said, and most HR departments consider employees’ families a risk.
The family’s acclimation to the new location is “very personal and includes every aspect of … life,” explained Eileen Mullaney, who leads PricewaterhouseCoopers’ Global Mobility consulting practice.
“It is not just moving a job or personal items but moving a life and rebuilding that life in a new location,” she added. “While this is exciting for many, it can also be extremely stressful for others.”
Anxiety can be averted if families get support from the beginning of the assignment. Thriving Abroad helps companies create support programs for expat families and works with accompanying partners to guide them through the relocation process, with a focus on empowering employees’ loved ones to find their own purpose and fulfillment while abroad.
Thriving Abroad’s research reveals that almost 80 percent of accompanying partners wish to do some type of work while out of their home country (most of them worked before the international assignment), but legal and even practical challenges often preclude that from happening.
“These partners often struggle with issues relating to identity and the absence of meaning and achievement, considered to be the key elements of flourishing,” Simpson said. “These factors can be a problem even when partners choose not to work. In addition, they also have to adjust to some of the side effects of not working, particularly to financial dependence.”
As challenging as it can be to go from dual incomes to a single income, advance preparation and training can improve how an employee and his or her spouse navigate the new cultural landscape—putting the trailing spouse in as advantageous a situation as possible.
RiseSmart CEO Sanjay Sathe said the single-income factor greatly affects the success of some overseas assignments. “According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about two-thirds of families with school-age children rely on dual incomes,” he noted. “While a new career opportunity for one spouse may be exciting news, it can also be a time of stress for the other spouse. Even though the new position may come with a pay raise, the trailing spouse can be left unemployed in a foreign city, with no connections or job prospects.”
Companies should turn to outplacement services that can help spouses find work, Sathe said. “While many employers are concentrating on relocation benefits such as moving expenses and temporary living costs, neither provides a means for sustainable living and community connection. Once the initial aid runs out, the family is left with just the one income. Simply providing monetary compensation will not always solve the problem.”
According to the 2012 Allied Workforce Mobility Survey, just 9 percent of responding companies offered spousal relocation. “Investing in spousal outplacement not only helps employees manage their careers but lends aid to the spouse’s career, as well,” Sathe observed. “Providing this type of assistance can give employers a unique advantage and help them attract and retain key talent.”
Cynthia Nerangis, president of LemonLime Consulting, a Chicago-based boutique cultural-training firm, said her company meets with spouses of transferred employees and asks how they would like to spend their time during the overseas assignment. LemonLime then offers customized training that covers everything from tips to successfully make it through the relocation process to learning about cultural differences to how culture affects business in the workplace. The firm also creates a plan of action for expatriates and families to help them achieve an overall rewarding international experience and adapt successfully to their new culture.
Nerangis thinks businesses with international assignments should make such training mandatory and provide it through their human resource and global-mobility departments.
“The initial experience for the trailing spouse can be both scary and intimidating,” she said, “but the outcome can be quite stimulating and exhilarating, depending on the individual’s willingness to adapt, learn and grow. The support they are offered can make a vast difference in the outcome of the trailing spouse’s international experience.”
According to Mullaney, adapting to a new environment is the biggest issue facing trailing spouses, but she is increasingly seeing companies make the necessary investments to ease the transition for relocated staffers and their families.
“Many companies are including spouse and family satisfaction into their program success measures, with family focus as one of the critical design requirements for their overall program,” Mullaney said. “We are also seeing more focus on internal programs to help support the transition. This can range from informal networking groups, spouse mentor programs, host-family support programs, as well as social activities and even internal social media sites to help connect the new families to other assignees and local families in the local community.”
Dawn S. Onley is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.
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