Coping with Homesickness While Working Abroad

By Adriana Scott Sep 6, 2013

The upsides of an international assignment are many for an upwardly mobile employee eager to embrace new opportunities, achieve career growth and experience an adventure abroad.

However, after the initial thrill wears off, expatriates may realize that their ties to home are stronger than expected. Relocated employees may experience homesickness, which can derail a successful overseas assignment.

Shana Montesol Johnson, a native of Southern California and northern Mexico, relocated to the Philippines when her husband’s career sent the family overseas. During the inevitable stages of culture shock and homesickness, she found ways to bring her home to her new location. She celebrates an intimate Thanksgiving holiday with immediate family and a few friends and always manages to get her hands on traditional corn tortillas.

She launched a career coaching business and started a blog, a career move that led her to explore how living abroad affects international assignees. Nine years later, she still resides in Manila.

Moving to another country wasn’t easy, she said. Her husband’s firm offered little training in the transition, which emboldened her to do some of the work HR could have to assist homesick expats.

“[It] makes such a difference for HR to provide training on culture shock, some introduction to the new culture,” Johnson said. “Maybe including a bit of history, of culture, a little bit of language studies.”

When employees agree to work internationally, they are agreeing to detach themselves from a personal norm for an extended time.

According to global HR consultant Neil Currie, homesickness has two causes: “One is missing of the familiar, of missing home,” he said. “The other is difficulty in adjusting to the new environment.” It is a subcategory of culture shock that’s often characterized by a lost sense of control paired with a deflating self-confidence, he explained. It is a natural but sometimes overwhelming occurrence for expats.

Although there is no clear-cut cure for the condition, several of Currie’s clients have discovered methods to combat homesickness. One practices yoga; another listens to familiar childhood music. Most find ways to contact loved ones from home via video chat and create communities with other expats from the same country.

However, too much of a good thing is a possible consequence. Currie warned against using loved ones and memories of home as a crutch. Sometimes the best method is full immersion.

“You want to push yourself to get out into the community to make friends, to learn the culture,” Currie said. “Learn the history of the location where you are. Learn how government and the private sector and other aspects of life work in that country, and establish a new routine for yourself as quickly as possible. Don’t spoil yourself. Don’t sit alone.”

Ron Pilenzo, a global HR consultant and former president of the Society for Human Resource Management, said that HR could have researched much of that information in advance and used it to help select expats. HR practitioners would be more effective if they became more involved in the selection and training process.

“We focus on the skills and pay little or no attention to the individuals themselves and the family environment,” Pilenzo said of the predeparture process.

According to Pilenzo, the primary factors that HR should study are the country’s social and political cultures as well as the typical work culture. What is the typical managerial style in the foreign company? How do employees interact? Does the country practice social caste systems? From there, HR should find qualified employees who are the best fit for immersion.

“HR should be supportive of a thorough cross-cultural training program before [expats] go overseas or shortly after they arrive, and culture shock should be one of the top items to be addressed in such a program,” advised Neal Goodman, president of New Jersey-based Global Dynamics, a provider of expatriate training, coaching and services. Culture-shock and homesickness preparation should not wait until the expat is feeling the full effects. It is a natural occurrence that happens to many expats, Goodman said. It may not be a pleasant experience, but it should be one that professionals on assignments abroad find predictable and manageable.

With the assistance of HR before and during the international assignment, expat employees will also have the opportunity to discover unique qualities of the foreign country they’re working in.

“There are some particular fruits that are so good, and you only get them when you’re here,” Johnson said of her new home in the Philippines.

The more that expats can find their own quirky affections for a new location, the better able they will be to fight homesickness.

Adriana Scott is an editorial intern for SHRM Online.


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