Companies ‘failing’ expat employees returning home

Multinationals are failing to do enough to prepare expat staff for life back home when they return from overseas assignments, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal.

Family arriving home from relocation assignment
While both companies and individuals are normally good at preparing for their relocation abroad, repatriation poses problems that are not being widely addressed, says the report.Part of the problem, according to Sheldon Kenton, chief commercial officer at Cigna Global Health Benefits, is that human resources staff are often the last to hear about staff being repatriated.Mr Kenton told the Wall Street Journal that more companies were now becoming aware of the problems surrounding the practical and psychological adjustments associated with homecomings, mainly because a “fairly significant” number of employees leave their jobs shortly after repatriation.“That seems like a bit of a waste,” he said. “We always look at a three-year assignment of an expat as a million-dollar investment. If an employee leaves six months after returning, that’s a relatively poor return on investment.”Because multinational companies are failing to pay sufficient attention to the problems of returning assignees, some 12 per cent leave their company within a few years of repatriation, according to research by Brookfield Global Relocation Services.Diane Douiyssi, from Brookfield, told the newspaper that she thought companies would “want to work harder to retain these key employees… given the inordinate cost of international assignments”.Lois Bushong, who has spent much of her life as an expat, became a therapist to help others deal with this transition. A founding member of the group, Families in Global Transition, Ms Bushong said that the dearth of counselling help for expats coming home – particularly those who had been evacuated from countries in crisis – was one of her motivations.She said it was too easy for returning expats to feel isolated. “Nobody gets it. It’s like having somebody dying and there’s no funeral and you’re not supposed to talk about it. You feel guilty talking about it,” she said.Ms Bushong said repatriation can be particularly tough on ‘trailing spouses’ who can refuse to re-establish roots at home in expectation of the spouse being sent abroad again.She had one client who refused to unpack, buy furniture or make friends for two years after the repatriation. “She kept waiting for (her husband) to come home and say, ‘We’re moving again’,” she said.The newspaper cited the case of Nneka Okona, a 28-year teacher from Atlanta, who experienced severe alienation – sometimes called reverse culture shock – after returning to the US from a year in Spain.She moved back to Washington, DC, to live with her father. A friend warned her that repatriation might be tough but “I kind of shrugged it off”, she said.“The first month was amazing, all the food and soda and little things I missed so much,” she said.“For the first four weeks, I felt like I was visiting. Then I realised I really do live here. I was not going back anywhere. That was when things started to get really hard.”Ms Okona stopped leaving the house and cut herself off from friends. Finally, at her father’s urging, she saw a therapist and was diagnosed with “situational depression” – a condition caused in her case by her inability to adjust to the transition of her new life.Now recovered, Ms Okona is planning her next stint abroad, as a graduate student in England.For more Re:locate news and features about partner and family support click here

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