As an employer, manager, HR professional or even a thoughtful team colleague, you need to look after the employees’ well-being and optimal stress levels. When you also have international assignees in the mix this gets even more important!
How do expat’s stress levels differ from ones experienced by a local employee?
What can employers do to help minimize the amount of stress related to relocation?
What are expats’ main stress triggers?
First, let’s do a quick recap of what we mean by stress and stressors. In short, stress can be described as “your perception of pressure and your body’s response to that perception”, while the pressures are usually referred to as “stressors”. Have a look at the following three articles to get more detail and a thorough introduction to the topic of expat stress:
The stressors for people who have moved abroad, regardless of whether for longer or just for a fixed-time assignment may be similar: finding accommodation, all the administration in the new location (bank accounts, insurance, medical coverage etc.), adaptation to the new ways of working and being, making sure the partner and kids are settling in well too, homesickness, feeling of incompetence… and the list goes on.
On top of this, we then of course have more generic work-related stressors that might kick in: performing well, getting on with the colleagues, nurturing client relationships, own growth and development, work-life balance, international exposure, frequent business travel. All of which might be dependent on slightly different or adjusted skills than the ones you have used back home.
Low-cost improvements that will help support international assignees’ adaptation
It might be that you don’t have the budget to provide an extensive relocation support to your employees. Even if that’s the case there are a number of smaller things that you can do to reduce some of the stress levels that your new expat has to deal with.
You are not able to pay for services of the relocation company to help your employee with the administration related to the move, such as finding a house, opening a bank account or signing up for a doctor? Fair enough. But here are some things that are within your control to provide to your employee:
- Suggest what external services they might potentially use at their own expense – you probably have a general idea of what options exist in your city. Even if it doesn’t turn out to be something the person will use, it will help them start the initial search and compare various providers!
- Explain the process of setting up a bank account and what documents most institutions usually require – of course that the documents might differ, but knowing what the process looks like already decreases the stress of even ‘having to find out’ and ‘how do I know if that’s correct’. I still remember the shock of spending 1,5 hours in a bank branch to open an account!
- Provide them with a list of popular websites for finding flats and houses in your city – sometimes it’s hard to know which ones are good or bad when you’ve never been to the location!
- Find a report or infographics that shows a summary of renting prices in the area – although it might be tough finding a completely reliable source, it’s usually possible to find something that sounds right. It’s easier for you to judge if it’s right than for the expat who has never lived in the city. Again, although it might not be entirely correct, it is a nice gesture to show that you are anticipating the person’s needs and are willing to help out.
You can’t spend much time on the onboarding, scheduling 1:1 meetings or showing the new person around the office? That’s a pity, but it is still possible to come up with quick improvements to help reduce some of the stressors that an international assignee may face upon arrival.
- Keep a log of people in your company/office who have relocated – you might then easily turn to this list when you need someone with a specific set of cultural references
- Connect people with similar experiences – using the above list, you might share some names with the expat before their arrival to the new location. Given your lack of capacity, leave it up to them to schedule a call if they need it. Just giving the person the opportunity to speak to someone who either has been through a similar experience or might have already used some local relocation services is a great gesture.
- Assign a buddy – ok, I get it, it requires time on your side to match people up with each other. But you might start creating a “sub-culture” of welcoming all the new employees in the office and ensure that each new person will have someone to turn to with the basic questions, like “Where do I find some stationary?”, “Where do I go if I need IT support?”, “Where does HR sit?”. This is not a good idea only for assignees and will definitely enhance your employees’ onboarding experience!
For people who are changing locations, sometimes the biggest issues or uncertainties are around the most basic things. I often hear from people that they knew they would need to deal with all the administration, flat hunting, bureaucracy and they were prepared for these types of challenges (as much as you can be prepared for that!). Somehow the basic things like “Where to go to buy cheapest groceries” or “Where can I go for dinner?” tend to throw people off as they are at the bottom of the list (if at all!) or remain un-researched. This is where you might step in, anticipate this need and provide relevant supporting materials and people network for the assignee.
Should I treat international assignees differently from the other employees?
To some extent and in certain areas, yes. I believe that you should notice, acknowledge and take action on the additional stressors that your assignees are facing.
People who have not experienced relocation will not have the additional stressors they need your support with. They will also usually not mind the extra support you are providing for the expats. It is in both yours and their interest that you are providing this extra set of information and/or support to people who are relocating. That way, their stress levels can be reduced and the expat employee can enter the new location, new office, new team, often new role as well, with a peace of mind and feeling prepared for the work challenges.
What happens after the assignment?
One other stressor that your local employees do not usually face is “What is going to happen after my fixed-time assignment has finished?”. For fixed-time assignees, where they are either relocating for half a year for a project, or for a year to open up a new branch etc, there is a time when they start to wonder what is the next step. It is especially important for people with families as their work and next career steps influence their partners and children.
As an employer, whether HR or manager, you need to make sure that these questions do not remain unanswered. What’s more, I think they should be discussed already before the assignee even arrives to the new location. It is obvious that the company cannot predict exactly what is going to happen on the market in a year or two. But having some structures and processes in place that help manage this uncertainty for the employee who is assigned to a project abroad is of great value. Whether it’s agreeing to regular check-ins or putting a more formal system and timeline in place for the repatriation process.
All of the above is not to say that there should be some special, light treatment for expats, but just to point out that as an employer you need to ensure that the employee has all the required support to perform at their best, whether they are local or expat employee. If that means giving some more attention for a while to the person who is relocating in order for them to perform at their normal levels, then this is what needs to be done.
International assignees bring many new perspectives and ideas to their new location and can be a great asset to the organisation. Providing such international experience to the employees can also influence the brand positively and build a very special, loyal relationship. However, this will only happen if the relocation is done right.
What are your experiences with relocating? Did your employer support you throughout the process? How did they do that? As a HR professional or manager, what do you usually do to ensure a good integration of a relocating employee?