I joined my partner during his expat assignment in China for four years. A year ago, after a very interesting and eye-opening experience, we returned to Finland. Living in a country that was so different from what I was used to changed a lot of my assumptions of how the world is, and also had a profound impact on my values.
There have been many studies done on the effects of expat assignments to individuals and the companies that employ them. One such is the ”Worldwide Survey of Internatioal Assignment Policies and Practises” by Mercer. Many of the 750 people who took part in the survey admit, that it is difficult to put an exact value on an expat assignment. According to the survey 20-45% of expat assignments fail, which causes companies tens of millions of euros worth of damages annually. In addition to the monetary expenses, employers will also need to think of the invisible effects of a failed assignment, such as self-esteem issues, relationship problems, depression, and substance abuse. Such personal problems can easily add up to increased costs if they reduce productivity and increase absenteeism. They might also reduce the willingness of other employees to accept expat assignments.
Many studies seem to suggest that family support plays a vital role in the success of expat assignments. The lack of support can reduce productivity, postpone the start of work, negatively impact the relations between the expat employee’s and the host country employees’ relations, harm the successive expats’ efforts, and lead to the termination of the assignment. Even a prematurely terminated assignment will generate international experience and local knowledge that can assist an unsatisfied employee to switch over to a competitor.
One of the newest challenges companies must take into consideration is the increased amount of women expats. In many cultures the society still expects the wife to be the home-maker and to make compromises with her own career to support her husband’s. A man may also have more difficulties explaining a gap in his CV. During our assignment in China we only got to know a few families where the wife was the assignee. Even in these rare cases the husband seldom moved to China himself, and when he did it was only for short periods. Such a situation makes it difficult to concentrate and to give your all at the workplace. Many of the friends we made there said that some of their thoughts are always with their loved ones at home and that they spend much time travelling back and forth between the two countries.
Because of this, many expat partner support networks are targeted particularly for women. Therefore, when the expat partner is a man, he might find it challenging to get into these circles. I noticed this very clearly during ourr assignment. The Finnish network’s organized events, monthly lunches, book clubs, shopping trips, and handcraft- and cooking clubs were mostly about activities that are mostly of interest to women. It is difficult to imagine a man being fully comfortable while knitting.
Whether the assignee is a man or a woman, the role of an accompanying spouse is an important part of the relocation process. According to the Global Head of Intercultural Business Solutions at Farnham Castle Sheelagh Mahoney, corporations can reduce the risk of assignment failure by providing the entire family with cultural training before the assignment begins. It is an economic and pre-emptive method of minimizing the risks involved and to help expat families and their employers to get the most out of assignments. In many cases the expat-experience is still viewed as it was in the ’70s with servants and all. The reality, however, is very different and we must update our way of thinking and consider how to best support accompanying spouses, be they men or women.
In our case, we got plenty of support from my partner’s employer. During the four years we spent in China we discussed and compared experiences with other expats, which in turn influenced my opinions of those companies. Although my partner’s employer did their best and we received help from many instances, a lot still had to be learned the hard way. Having one experienced contact to handle all of the immigration and relocation matters would have immensily helped and sped up the settling-in in the new country.
- The writer works for FRS as a relocation consultant. She has personal experience being an expat spouseas well as facing and overcoming challenges with expat assignments.
Interested in hearing more from an accompanying spouse? Listen to Emi tell about their experiences in moving to Finland!