Why do expats fear coming home?

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Living the expat dream is a lifestyle choice that many people would seize if they had the opportunity. The chance to experience different cultures, climates and lifestyles is a prospect too exciting to ignore, and with international travel and trade opening up employment opportunities across the globe, the global expat population is estimated to rise from 66.2m last year to 87.5m in 2021.

But what happens when the adventure comes to an end and it’s time to go home? For many, it’s an experience which can prove just as challenging as relocating in the first place. HR and Global Mobility Managers can often overlook this feeling – why would someone be worried about returning to a lifestyle and a country in which they’ve happily lived before?

Below are some of the common worries those returning from a spell abroad may encounter, and how HR can help address these.

  1. Logistics

While many would expect the process of moving abroad to be difficult, returning to your home country can be just as challenging. With a to-do list that might include reclaiming a property that was rented during your time abroad and shipping clothes and furniture back home, as well as updating financial arrangements and securing access to transport, the process can quickly become overwhelming.

Whilst many companies will offer support, HR Managers should check in with employees regularly, to ensure the process isn’t too onerous. It’s important to start communicating about relocating well in advance, so the employee knows what will happen and when – allowing them time to organise logistics or to get a grasp of what support will be available.

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  1. Re-acclimatisation

Returning to something you’ve left behind can be surprisingly challenging. It’s easy, if not comforting, while living abroad to imagine that things at home are just as you left them, and expats can be surprised to find that time has marched on when they return. Friendship groups may have changed, colleagues might have moved to another department or even to another company, the working environment may have changed and family responsibilities will evolve. HR needs to be aware that settling back in isn’t always a straightforward process, and that adjusting to the new lay of the land can weigh upon employees’ wellbeing. An appropriate action would be to check in with returning employees, to ensure they’re settling back in comfortably.

  1. Cultural differences

Even for expats who spent their whole lives in their ‘home’ countries before taking on an international assignment, coming home can still require some adjustment. Even old commutes, for example, might suddenly seem more demanding than before – if you’ve got used to using the MRT in Singapore, returning to the Tube in London will be a very different experience. Likewise, driving in snowy weather can suddenly seem more daunting than it used to be after a couple of years’ driving in a warmer country. These challenges can ultimately contribute to a sense of ‘culture shock’, causing an employee to feel distracted as they re-familiarise themselves. So, it’s up to HR to be aware of how these changes could affect their employees and ensure that realistic expectations are formed upon their return home.

  1. Political changes

It’s difficult to imagine now, but just three years ago, nobody had ever heard the word, ‘Brexit’. Whilst returning to a country with a markedly different political environment to that which was in place when they left might not have a significant affect an employee’s day-to-day role, HR managers should still consider how adjusting to this new climate could prove challenging. Politics is, of course, a matter of personal opinion, but it’s worth speaking to returning employees about how any political changes might impact their role in the company, in particular.

  1. Job concerns

Returning to an old workplace can be daunting. Whilst employees may know the role and the culture, colleagues move on and team dynamics change. There’s also the role. If an employee has been away for three or five years, will their old role still be there? Will it have evolved? Will it be as fast-paced or carry as much responsibility as it did before? After all, personal development is a key factor in employee motivation and engagement. Therefore, HR needs to have an open dialogue with returning employees about what they can expect in the job they are coming back to. This means any potential issues can be ironed out in advance, lessening the impact of change.

Whilst it may seem easier to return home than leave in the first place, the process can come with its own challenges. The reality is that the fear of change can be stronger than that of the unexpected. My advice would be that communication is key – keep returning expats informed and engaged, and have open, honest conversations to gauge how they’re coping. A happy employee is an engaged employee, so for the good of the company and the wider team, don’t be afraid to have difficult conversations. It will pay off in the long run.

Caroline Walmsley, Global Head of HR, AXA – Global Healthcare

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