Stress & the Expatriate Employee
Ronald Schouten, MD, JD
The excitement and challenge of an overseas work assignment can
be the high point of any career. These assignments may provide the
expatriate employee with a career boost, increased income, and an
opportunity to experience a new culture, meet new people, and view
business in a broader context. The move to another country, like
any other significant life change, is likely to cause significant
stress for the expatriate employee and his or her family.
Stress is a term used to describe a vague combination
of emotional and physical symptoms, as well as the cause of those
symptoms. Its widespread use began in the 1960s when the physiologist
Hans Selye used it to describe the rate of wear and tear on
the organism. Thirty years later it is used to refer to everything
from the emotions caused by a traffic jam to overwork leading to
Since Selye introduced the concept, multiple researchers have studied
the causes and effects of stress, often finding that positive, as
well as negative, events can cause significant stress. For example,
Holmes and Rahe found that a new job, a promotion, and marriage
caused significant stress, as did the death of a family member,
loss of a job, and other unpleasant life events.
Research in the field has shown that stress is a nonspecific response
to events and that this response can have a number of emotional
and physical consequences. Many researchers have looked at the relationship
between stress and a wide range of medical problems including the
common cold, depression, and even cancer.
In talking about stress, we often refer to eustress
(normal stress) and distress, to differentiate between beneficial
and destructive stress. On the beneficial side, we know that physical
stress can stimulate bone growth, but excessive stress can cause
bones to break. Intellectual and physical stress that comes with
a heavy workload can increase the skills and capacity for hard work;
in excess, it can lead to emotional and physical illness.
There is no question that an overseas assignment causes stress
for the employee and his or her family, and that a fair amount of
it is distress. The high percentage of expatriate employees who
return without completing the assignment (some estimate up to 50%)
can be attributed to the stress that comes with moving to a new
job in a new culture. A high proportion of employees return from
these assignments because of emotional difficulties encountered
by themselves or their family members. These difficulties include
anxiety, depression, and substance abuse problems, as well as general
loneliness and dissatisfaction with life in the new country.
What can the expatriate employee and his or her family do to manage
the stress inherent in these assignments to avoid the negative consequences
of stress? These stress management measures can be divided into
three parts: preparation, steps on arrival, and ongoing measures.
The most important steps in managing the stress of the overseas
assignment begin before the employee ever leaves home, when the
decision is made whether or not to accept the assignment, and as
preparations are made for the move. They include the following:
- Assessment of whether there is a good fit between the
employee and the overseas assignment. This includes having a good
match between the skill set required for the job, whether the
job will provide sufficient challenge for the employee, and whether
the employees personality is well suited to an overseas
assignment. Assessments of fit, both from the skill and personality
standpoints, are provided by employers in some cases, or can
obtained from consultants in the field.
- Preparation of the employee and family members for entering
the new culture. This includes language lessons and cultural
education. Again, some employers provide this as part of the process of sending
an employee abroad, but some do not. And in many cases, preparation
is not provided for family members even if it is provided for
the employee. Language courses and books on the new culture are
worthwhile investments in the future success of the assignment,
even if the employee has to fund these him or her self.
- Determine what the employee and family members will do
in the new country. In most cases, but not all, the expectations
of the employees role in the new job are spelled out. Ambiguity
of the role can lead to considerable distress, and it is best
to have the specifics of the assignment and the expectations stated
clearly to the extent possible. Perhaps just as important is clarification
of what the spouse and children will do in the new country. While
there are cultural obstacles to women in the workforce in some
countries, it is best to know that in advance so that other plans
can be made to keep the spouse active and interested. Generally
speaking, it is best for spouses to work or engage in other productive
activities outside the home in the new country. Similarly, plans
should be made for both the educational and social needs of the
- Determine what social networks will be available to provide
support to the employee and his or her family members. Religious
organizations, social groups for expatriates, newcomers to communities,
or activities structures around other social connections or
interests and all provide valuable outlets for the stress associated with
adjustment to a new community and culture.
- Know how and from whom you and your family will be getting
your health care
- Be prepared for the physical and emotional strain of
the move. Physical and emotional exhaustion are common for the
family after a long trip, changing time zones, and dealing
with unfamiliar locations and signs. Tempers are likely to be
at times; tolerance and understanding of what the entire
family is going through are critical. Humor is a great ally during
of stress; joking about the stresses and strains of the transition
should be encouraged.
- Homesickness, which strikes most expatriates at some point,
may occur early or late. Make your home environment as
familiar as possible; unpack cherished items from home early in the process.
Follow up on the social support contacts you planned before
you left home.
- Familiarize yourself with the new environment, including
your new neighbors, as quickly as possible.
- Follow up on arrangements for the new activities planned
for the entire family before you left home.
- Check in with your health care providers
Managing in the Long Run
Once the excitement of the move is over, and the entire family
has settled in, there will be stresses associated with longer term
adjustment as the assignment goes forward. Different educational
systems, cultural and legal requirements, and food items will all
provide challenges to the health and stability of the family. The
steps outlined above, along with the following, can all help you
and your family manage the stress of your time abroad.
- Stay in touch with news and events at home.
- Talk to each other. Families that can share the ups and
downs of daily life tend to weather the downs more easily,
and enjoys the ups, more than families in which communications are
- Be aware of the emotional strains that develop over time,
and the possibility that emotional or physical symptoms
may develop that need assessment and treatment. Watch out for each other,
and encourage family members to get help when stress
seems to be interfering with their daily function.
As we pointed out at the beginning, the overseas assignment
can be a high point for the employee and his
or her family. It can
also be an enormous emotional and physical
challenge that can be mastered through active planning and
the new environment and become part of it.
Enjoy the new assignment. When in doubt, contact us. Were
here to help.