There’s little doubt that, in theory, global relocation for work is appealing, but in practice, it is an upheaval. Homesickness may strike, plus there is the anxiety surrounding a wholesale cultural change and the welfare of both family who have travelled with the assignee and those they have left in their home country.
We recently asked more than 250 HR decision-makers from around the world what they had learned as they worked with employees on global relocation programmes. Refreshingly, we found that 77% of them said that assignees had reported a quality of life that was either much or somewhat better while they were immersed on an overseas assignment.
There is however a darker side to relocations. Half of our respondents also said that they had seen an increase in mental health issues of those on assignments. Why might this be?
Home seems a long way away
One area identified as a mobility challenge is management. It can be hard for managers to manage people effectively when on assignment, especially when it comes to monitoring wellbeing. In fact, 42% of respondents to our survey said that managing the wellbeing of relocated employees was the biggest challenge they faced with them. Despite technology offering a platform for one-to-one meetings, they aren’t always possible because of time differences, while the assignee may also struggle with language and cultural barriers with their line manager in their host country.
Similarly, if they work exclusively from home on an assignment – as 56% of respondents said they would be happy for their assignees to do – then the employee is missing out on all kinds of cultural learnings and interactions with their new colleagues, which might cause them problems.
It’s vital that when managers and their direct reports do speak, managers are able to identify mental health cues and signs from assignees as well as dealing with the issues themselves, so they can signpost support as quickly as possible.
Offering help and support for everyone
The pandemic was a game-changer on almost every conceivable level. As a result, wellbeing is now at the forefront of thought for many HR departments, particularly when it comes to relocations.
There are many ways in which HR can offer practical support to assignees. They can make sure that security and health aspects of relocation policies are appropriate to the territory in question and that the right orientation, settling in and destination support is offered so that integration is smooth.
Regular check-ins with a member of the HR team who understands the culture of the country that the assignee has moved to are also beneficial, as is local support.
It’s not just about the assignee though. For an assignment to be a success, family members who have accompanied them also need to be happy. We learned anecdotally that HR professionals should remember to include them in intercultural and language training that is offered to the assignee. The HR professional should also make a point of asking after family members and understanding their concerns as well as the assignee’s when the two update each other.
The world has the potential to change very quickly. What was the case when the assignee left for their adventure might not necessarily be the same when they return home, which makes reintegration difficult.
More than half – 53% – of those surveyed said that it is a challenge when assignees return and structures and hierarchies within the business have changed while they were away. Half of the respondents said that finding new roles for returning staff was problematic, while 38% said they had even had to make redundancies at the end of a relocation programme.
Looking after an assignee on their return starts before they have even left for their assignment. It’s important to design relocation policies which retain ties to home, so that the assignee does not feel like their host location is now where they belong as their role there progresses, no matter what might be happening socially, politically and economically at home.
Home and location managers should work together to identify the goals and targets which allow progress to be monitored, so there is no sense of disconnect on the return.
Just as they are included in repatriation discussions, the assignee’s family should also be involved in reintegration when it’s time to come home. Reverse culture shock can impact on how they slot back into their working or educational lives.
HR is always here to help
With global mobility increasing in popularity, more and more employers are now putting the emphasis on the employee, rather than the company, in their relocation policies. This makes the assignee’s wellbeing a truly demonstrable aim.
Our previous two reports have shown that global relocation offers real, tangible benefits as they increase both productivity and staff retention. However, employers need to understand that they are not universally healthy for everyone involved, but that these obstacles can be tackled appropriately and sensitively by HR.
Caitlin Pyett is a seasoned Global Mobility specialist with a 25-year career spanning various sectors. Starting in investment banking in London, Caitlin progressed from operations to regional management. In 2012, she moved to Singapore as Policy and Practices Manager, focusing on mobility policy design and vendor management. Since 2017, she's been in Hong Kong, managing Account Operations for Crown in Asia and leading Consulting and Client Advisory Board practices.