The Problem with Being a Long-Term Expat

After 15 years, and a life on the road that took her to Japan, Singapore and Australia, Helen Maffini felt it was time to return home to Canada. But, it took just a fraction of that time for her to realise she had made a mistake.

“We moved [back] to Canada in 2013 because we thought we wanted to settle down,” she says, via email. “We realised after a year, we did not! Me, especially. I found it hard to fit in again, I felt very different and things had changed a lot. We found the long winter very hard and it was pretty quiet compared to where we have lived before.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Maffini, 46, an education consultant, this month, moved to Cambodia, where her husband, an Italian chef, is taking up a new position.

Maffini's experience is not unusual, particularly as the expat demographic has shifted over the past 20 years. Traditionally, an expat posting involved a professional being transferred to an international office by their company for what would typically be a one-off three-year deployment. A lucrative package of incentives would often sweeten the deal.

But recent surveys show the expat profile is changing. Expats are now as likely to be Asian, as Western European or North American, according to one report. And expats are taking a string of shorter, back-to-back assignments or agreeing to longer-term deployments.

But there are downsides. Such long absences can play havoc with a person’s sense of identity, a feeling that is intensified by the length of time away and how often they visit home, according to Nicola McCaffrey, a psychologist based in Stavanger, Norway. Some long-term expats can’t adjust to their new life in their old home and struggle with reverse culture shock. In some cases, they return to the road, unable to pick up where they left off.

Even for expats who take shorter assignments, returning home can prove an enormous upheaval. The vast majority of companies (78% according to Cartus’ 2016 Global Mobility Policy and Practices survey) don’t track staff retention following repatriation, but of those that do, 52% said that between zero and 10 employees left within a year or two of returning home, and 24% said between 11 and 30 quit.

“Many people start to repatriate when they want to settle down and have a family,” says London-based career performance coach Nikki Thomas, who spent two years working in Hong Kong. “It is the idea of bringing their children up in the same country [where] they were born, and giving their child the same passport – their identity. It’s also that you see your homeland through rose-tinted glasses after you leave, and as the generations get older you want to be ‘home’ for your parents.

Although many organisations spend a considerable amount – sometimes as much as three times an employee’s annual pay – on expatriation, the return process is often whittled down to the simple logistics such as flights, moving costs and school fees.

The well-being of the employee and their family, even though they may have been away for five years or more, is rarely considered.

 “It’s something that is hugely overlooked, and something that seriously needs to be looked at,” says Thomas. “Many people who come home want to leave again, and that is primarily because of the lack of support.”

Worse, employees may have taken an international assignment thinking it would fast-track their career back home, only to find themselves in a role that makes little use of the skills they acquired abroad.

Edited from BBC Capital


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