With many expats now thinking about going home, either voluntarily or due to the economic fallout of the lockdown, there are a number of common challenges they can expect to face.
Coming home is a “funny thing”, F. Scott Fitzgerald once observed. “Nothing changes. Everything looks the same, feels the same, even smells the same. You realise what’s changed is you.”
According to extensive academic research, such sentiments resonate not only with employees returning from deployments abroad, but also with students coming home after studying in foreign lands. It has been branded ‘reverse culture shock’ and its effects are not only felt by the individuals involved, but also by the institutions they work for or at which they are studying.
The research shows that ‘repats’ can experience more intense culture shock on returning home than the trepidation they initially felt when being dispatched abroad. In one poll, 80 per cent of returning Japanese expats, 71 per cent of Finnish, 64 per cent of Dutch and 60 per cent of Americans said they found it harder readjusting to their home country than to their host country abroad.
REVERSE CULTURE SHOCK
Repatriation can be a troubling time, not just for the returning expat, but also for his or her employers. While the expat is likely to find it harder than expected to get back into the swing of things, the employer faces a more business-like problem: a high proportion of returning expats leave their jobs. The need to start the global assignment was almost certainly driven by a strategic imperative, but there is little strategic need for the returning expat. They come home because their task is complete, not because they are necessarily needed. It is understandable that people see the outgoing journey as more complex, and therefore, more worthy of the HR or global mobility department’s time and attention. The return journey often involves no house search, no schooling problems, no language barrier – surely just a glorious homecoming? The truth is that the reverse culture shock can be every bit as difficult, since many expats expect life to be as it was, but the world has often moved on without them – leaving them feeling out of place. The disillusionment that follows is often the catalyst for changing jobs.
NOT ALWAYS A PASSPORT TO PROMOTION
According to a survey by global talent company Brookfield Global Relocation Services (BGRS), just 23 per cent of companies talk to returning overseas assignees from day one about the roles that might be open to them in the future. And recent research from the Canadian Employee Relocation Council found that only 30 per cent of organisations currently provide repatriation support. While the employee sees an overseas assignment as a passport to promotion, the employer simply wants someone to get the job done and is not making any promises – or plans – for the employee’s future prospects back at home. This could be short-sighted on the employer’s part. Many multinational employers, have lost expensively-developed talent through lack of forward planning. Returning home can be as big an upheaval as moving away, but is rarely as well supported.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, the BGRS survey found that repatriated staff were 14 per cent more likely to leave their company within two years of returning, compared to other employees. Cultural Awareness International, a Dallas-based global mobility company, says that reverse culture shock is one of the major challenges an expatriate and his/her family face. It explains, “Culture shock is precipitated by the anxiety that results from losing all of our familiar signs and symbols of social intercourse.” The firm says that common problems include academic issues (for students), cultural identity conflict, social withdrawal, depression, anxiety, interpersonal difficulties, alienation, disorientation, stress, value confusion, anger, hostility, compulsive fears, helplessness and disenchantment. Returning home is not only challenging from a personal point of view, but can be damaging professionally because individuals often bring back business values and attitudes that do not translate well in his or her indigenous environment. It is equally important for repats to anticipate and prepare for the return home in a similar way that they prepared for their overseas assignment.
FRIENDS AND FAMILY CONNECTIONS
When it comes to children, Nan Sussman, a professor of psychology at the College of Staten Island (part of the City University of New York) who has studied repatriation, says maintaining some sort of connection with the foreign country they have recently left, might be especially important. For many of these ‘third-culture kids’, she says, it is important to remember that the time spent abroad might account for significant and formative portions of their lives and identity. The situation can be equally complicated for ‘trailing spouses’, who often struggle to find a job upon return and might well confront a sense of displacement. And there can be financial worries, too: research by Hoxton Capital, UAE-based financial consultant, found that as many as two-thirds of expats working in the region returned home less wealthy than when they arrived. Many expats find themselves in an awkward position after a number of years abroad where they have essentially outspent what they have earned. This could be down to inadvisable investments or leading a more extravagant lifestyle than they would at home. Individuals who find themselves in this position might be forced to repatriate and, in most cases, such an upheaval isn’t desirable.
Repatriating wealth is not always as simple as many think. For anyone who finds themselves in a position where they must return, or wants to return, we strongly advise reading our repatriation guide here.