Lucille Abendanon

What can companies do to make life easier for expat families?

27 August 2018

Lucille Abendanon

Written by Lucille Abendanon

In our series of articles about expat life, we’ve asked Lucille Abendanon, a freelance writer, 15-year expat and mother of three children to help us articulate the unique challenges of being an expat parent.

In this article, we look at what companies do well to help expat employees and their families, and where they can do better to ensure that the overseas assignment is a success.

When you decide to accept an expatriate assignment there are perhaps two or three main factors that go into making your decision: is this a good move for my career? Is this a good move for my family? Does this move make financial sense?

As contracts are negotiated, we tend to focus on monetary values, which are of course an important part of a successful expatriation. Is there a housing allowance? Will the company help with school fees? Does the salary make uprooting your lives worth it?

The stress of moving to a new country, of uprooting your family and leaving behind loved ones is enormous. Companies understand this, and so most offer financial support in order to attract the best candidates, but also to ensure that the overseas assignment is a success. This support usually comes in the form of financial assistance: a housing allowance, school fees, and an attractive salary.

Whilst the financial benefits are greatly appreciated, companies tend to fall short in terms of supporting the wellbeing of their expatriate staff and their families. In this article, we look at what companies can do to make life easier for expat families. Drawing from expats who have first-hand experience, we also examine where companies can do better.

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Financial benefits

When Lucille and her partner became expats 15 years ago, the financial support offered by the company was excellent. They had a healthy housing allowance and business class flights home every year. Their first assignment was in Saigon, Vietnam, which was considered a hardship posting and so they received a hardship allowance that allowed them to travel regularly to Vietnam’s more developed neighbours, Singapore, Bangkok or Hong Kong.

When they started a family, they were living in Istanbul and the international healthcare insurance provided by the company ensured that Lucille could go to an excellent hospital where she received first-class care. This support made giving birth in a foreign country much easier for her, and something that she was not afraid to do. In South Africa the company paid for their children’s school fees, which meant they could attend a private school. This made their transition to an international school environment much smoother when they moved to The Netherlands three years later.

Lucille believes their six international moves would not have been possible without company support because it allowed them to maintain the status quo to a certain degree. She feels it’s important to feel confident that areas such as schooling and healthcare will remain at the level (or higher) than you’re used to.

However, companies are beginning to implement cost containment measures, as sending staff to work abroad is an expensive business. AXA’s recent World of Work report states, “Multi-national companies pay an additional $50,267 over and above an employee’s base salary for each staff member sent on an international assignment. In the USA that figure is significantly more, at $94,758,” with Worldwide ERC estimating that a three to five-year contract can cost up to $1 million per person.

“The days of huge expat benefits are long gone,” says Robert Carlisle*, an employee at a global fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) company. “Ten years ago the benefits of moving abroad were enormous,” he continues, “big salaries, generous housing benefits, business class flights home, and a hardship allowance made expatriation very attractive.”

In today’s economy only around 49% of expats feel their company exceeds their expectations for supporting them during their current assignment. This reflects both companies cost containment policies, and the fact that people today are more willing to work abroad with a lower level of support. Indeed, in some corporate cultures living and working abroad is seen as integral to career progression. Companies need to find the balance between attracting the highest quality candidates, and affording to keep them happy when working abroad.

Wellbeing support

Financial support aside, there are important wellbeing challenges that companies can help with. Pre-assignment health checks are an important aspect of moving abroad. Companies can offer a medical assessment for international staff and their families both prior to departure and also annually throughout the assignment. This ensures that any medical issues are identified, can be managed and/or prevented. For example, moving to a city like Shanghai or Mumbai can come with health challenges due to pollution. A health check would identify any potential issues such as respiratory sensitivities, and a care plan can be put in place before the move.

Assigning a relocation agent to help families find their feet in their new country and lessen stress is vitally important. A relocation agent acts as a liaison between you and the numerous administrative and logistical challenges that will need to be overcome. For example, Lucille and her family would never have been able to navigate the complicated visa systems in Thailand or Turkey were it not for their agent who ensured the correct paperwork was submitted in the correct order and accompanied them to the bustling and extremely confusing visa office.

A relocation agent will also contact estate agents to show you houses within your budget. They’ll be able to advise on the best neighbourhoods and will tailor viewings to your preferences. A relocation agent may take you on a tour of the cities you’re considering living in. Their expertise and familiarity with the different areas can help you make a decision about where to live.

A relocation agent can really help in terms of finding schools. They’ll have a good knowledge of the different curriculums and where the international schools are. If you can travel to your new country on a ‘look-see’ before you officially move, the relocation agent will create an itinerary in which you view houses and visit schools so you can make an informed decision before you move. In South Africa, Lucille and her family were facing very long waiting lists at all the schools they liked. They eventually got a place for their kids thanks to the influence of the company and persistence of their relocation agent. That being said, doing your own homework and being equally persistent with schools definitely helps too!

Room for improvement

It is well known in expat circles that many assignments fail because spouses or the kids are unhappy. According to AXA’s own World of Work report 54% of HR directors at multi-national companies say that staff terminating international assignments early did so due to family concerns. It makes sense for companies to guard against this, especially given the enormous cost of sending staff abroad, yet there exists a definite chasm in this area of support.

Lucille advises that the term ‘trailing spouse’ is not particularly loved in expat circles mainly because as the spouse of an expatriate worker herself - the responsibility of settling into life abroad falls solely on them. They settle the kids, deal with admin, create a social life, discover where to buy groceries and how to navigate public transport systems; nearly always in a language they do not understand. There is nothing ‘trailing’ about a trailing spouse. What the term does hint at however is that they have chosen to follow their partners on the adventure of expat life. And whilst this does mean the start of a wonderful, enriching adventure, often they have left behind fulfilling careers of their own, or at the very least put them on hold until they return home.

Companies often underestimate the effect that has on a partner’s wellbeing and state of mind. For some partners, the leap from independent career person to stay at home parent is a harsh reality to adapt to, even more so if attaining a working visa is not possible.

Companies can offer support through expat coaching. There are many coaches who can help make sense of becoming an expat spouse. Many spouses use the opportunity to start their own portable businesses while living abroad and find deeper fulfilment, often choosing not to return to their previous career. Expat coaches can help to bring motivation and perspective.

Timely support

Some companies offer intercultural training, which serves to familiarise expats on the cultural nuances of life in their new country. But this support is usually given right as expats arrive and often falls short of the mark as impersonal video presentations replace one-on-one interactions with an intercultural trainer. In Lucille’s opinion, wellbeing support is less effective if done at the wrong time. She believes it should come at least three to six months down the line, which is a view supported by relocation experts and HR managers.

Joanne du Toit Mackie, head of training and development at Handelsbanken UK says that the timeliness of support is crucial. “When an employee begins an expatriate assignment the logistical support needs to come first,” she says, “assistance with visas and documentation, looking for housing, finding schools, those logistical things all take precedence. Emotional support, if offered, needs to come further down the line when the honeymoon period is over and reality begins to set in. That’s when staff and their spouses benefit the most.”

Companies can implement a mentoring system whereby newly expatriated employees and their families are put into contact with a person who has successfully expatriated. Companies may have their own internal mentoring system, or they may outsource to local expatriate mentors. A mentor is there to answer questions, share local knowledge and provide support during the settling in phase and would effectively take over from the relocation agent once the logistical aspect of the move has been completed.

Conclusion

Whilst the financial benefits offered by companies to expatriate staff can be good, often the emotional support of expat spouses falls short. For the sake of family wellbeing, companies could offer more support in the form of expat coaching or business coaching for spouses looking to explore entrepreneurial avenues. Companies can also ensure that any intercultural training is given at the right time and in a person-to-person environment. Accepting an international assignment without support for your spouse or family does not necessarily have to negatively affect your expat experience, indeed expats are usually go-getters and risk takers by nature and learn to thrive on the unknown.

* Name has been changed.

Lucille Abendanon – personal & family profile/professional work

In our series of articles about expat life, we’ve asked Lucille Abendanon, a freelance writer, 15-year expat and mother of three children (all born in different countries) to help us articulate the unique challenges of being an expat parent. Lucille is a British expat currently living in the Netherlands, and has previously lived in Vietnam, Thailand, Turkey and South Africa. Professionally, Lucille is a copywriter who focusses on travel and property. She runs the website Expitterpattica.com, posting on the blog on a range of expat topics, including expat parenting and children’s issues. Via this blog, she has guest posted on HuffPo, Global Living and a number of expat blogs and other sites.