Retaining globally mobile professionals after COVID-19 by Nanna Hauch – expat counsellor, MSc. Intercultural Management & family therapist

Mental health concerns are front and centre for everyone right now. Anxiety, uncertainty, fears for the future, the loss of our usual busy routines, juggling working from home with home school – we’ve all struggled at times. There’s plenty of advice out there, fortunately. The approach to lockdown has been very different around the world, with full enforcement and empty streets in Italy and Spain, but relative freedom in Sweden. One thing has been universal – the almost complete cessation of international travel. This has been a significant issue impacting globally mobile people and their families.

As lockdowns begin to ease across Europe and the US, are there any discernible strategies to help retain globally mobile professionals in a world still living with COVID-19 and its impacts?

Uncertainty is part of expat life

The uncertainty of recent months has been especially difficult for expat families. Of course, globally mobile individuals and their families are used to a degree of uncertainty – it comes with the territory. Contracts end, life changes rapidly, international moves are regular, and even a 10-year- old global nomad makes the most agile business manager look like an “adaptability-rookie”. But it’s a misconception to assume the (generally wealthy and well educated) globally mobile are impervious to anxiety, uncertainty and doubt. A large scale longitudinal study of 1.45 million. Danes, over 30 years to the millennium, investigated the long-term impact of mobility. Results from this study, published by Webb & Pedersen in 2016, suggested this mobile cohort had a higher susceptibility to negative outcomes later in life, across a range of psychological disorders. Flying in the face of research and common sense, the casual myth that globally mobile families are ‘super resilient’ still persists. One quote I read in an edited book on research into expat life (by Mila Lazarova and colleagues) encapsulates my view –

‘the challenges of international assignments are still generally underestimated, both by organizations and families’

It’s concerning, therefore, that employers still focus largely on the logistics and practical aspects of relocation and end up paying little or no attention to the psychological wellbeing of the new employee and their accompanying family. The best most can hope for? Some perfunctory ‘cultural training’ as a sweetener in the relocation package. In a COVID-19 world, this needs to change!

COVID-19: its impact on global mobility

Global mobility has increased hugely during the 21stC. International companies have always competed to attract diverse talent – and retaining the best brains after Covid-19 is now a key

challenge. Yet capital projects have been mothballed or struck out entirely. Teams are furloughed. Revenues have disappeared. Recruitment strategies are on hold.

Global companies have pulled expats from international assignments – especially from third world countries, those with weaker healthcare systems, or severe COVID-19 outbreaks. Families have been separated, as children and spouses are repatriated preferentially – this is a reality among the clients we work with, and has happened globally amongst international expat communities.

There is little extant academic research to fall back on regarding expat family adjustment and even less (or none) on individual and familial resilience in times of a global crisis. Like everything else right now – it’s far from clear what effect the current crisis will have on global mobility. Will international talent stay…or go?

This ‘corona interregnum’ is a unique opportunity for global companies to reflect, think strategically, and develop a plan on how to keep the best talent.

Should I stay or should I go?

When the world feels insecure, it’s a normal human reaction to yearn for the certainties of home. COVID-19 has already caused a global economic earthquake – there is a risk of premature termination of many expat contracts as businesses across all sectors battle to survive.

Even in normal times, academic studies have consistently shown that up to 70% of terminations are caused by the lack of family wellbeing (McNulty, 2014; Lazarova et al, 2015). Family happiness underpins professional productivity and performance. One study argues, not surprisingly, that there is a direct correlation between the productivity of the international assignee and the overall mental wellbeing of their accompanying family (Ones et al., 2018).

Our manifesto: measures global companies should take to bolster expat well-being

We encourage global companies to show courage and foresight and begin to extend their duty of care to encompass the wellbeing and mental health of both international employees AND their accompanying families.

“This too shall pass” – when the corona crisis is over, we need global companies to be ready, competitive and global like never before.

#1 Make “social fit” a strategic focus

It’s a fact that expats and international global talent find it easier to establish networks among other internationals. However, local friends and networks are vital to strengthen retention and well-being. In some cultures gathering a new social network is relatively easy. However, in ‘coconut-countries’ where it’s hard for new arrivals to crack the nut of high-trust, close-knit and established communities, it’s paramount to make it a strategic objective to support cross-cultural integration. It takes effort to support the process of dual adaptation. Expand socials to include international

employees’ families. Create ‘cross-cultural’ gatherings where the focus is on expanding horizons – not just drinking and dancing.

#2 Extend the ‘duty of care’

Providing ongoing mental health support for both international employees and their accompanying family is a must. We observe a widespread reluctance to provide “special programs” for the company’s globally mobile employees. This might partly be a cultural insouciance – but it’s a black mark for attracted talent.

#3 Provide ‘landing support’

The challenges of coming home – planned, or not – are always underestimated. As an organization it’s easy to overlook this. In order to welcome back returning international employees successfully, it’s important to address expectations. Providing a parachute upon return is vital!

We’re here to help

The WHO encourages people to seek help if they’re feeling anxious or overwhelmed. For high performing executives, showing mental vulnerability is often taboo. This group needs specialized support from professionals fully versed in the challenges of the mobile lifestyle, cultural differences and unique third culture challenges (Bushong, 2013).

At our mission is to support companies, families and individuals in achieving 360° expatriate success. We are expat specialists – specialized in intercultural management, psychology, psychotherapy and coaching.

We all have personal lived experience with globally mobile lifestyles. If you’re an expat or globally mobile individual (with or without a family), please share this blog with your global HR partner.

You can also reach out to us directly. If you work with internationals or in HR, please continue reading here or call +45 4011 0459 to learn how we can assist you to improve the wellbeing of your international employees and their families – both during the corona crisis, and after.

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