Having previously written about the importance of resilience for the successful expat, in this article, Lucy Kenyon SCPHN, M.Med.Sci., RGN explores the planning, challenges and pitfalls of moving home.
Repatriation is the process of returning a person – voluntarily – to his or her place of origin or citizenship. For the linguaphiles among us, repatriation stems from the late Latin repatriat- returned to one’s country, from the verb repatriare, from re- back + Latin patria native land.
In my first articles in Moscow expat Life I discussed the key health issues for expats. In the top 4 was Stress – Stress of global assignments. But nothing and nobody can prepare you for the challenge of moving home.
My first experience of repatriation was as a 13 year old coping with a return to what felt like a completely alien country, speaking a language that I had only used with my grandparents and cousins. I also watched my mother struggle even to re-establish herself in the town where she had grown up. Most of those who had remained behind had not visited us in Belgium and had no familiar reference points on which to reconnect.
In a strange way this helped to manage my expectations on our return from Moscow in 2014. I decided to wait and see who wanted to connect back with us. We sent the girls to school out of town in case teenage friendship groups were turbulent – at least they could concentrate on GCSEs and see the friends they had kept in touch with when not at school.
Expat life is a competitive environment within a highly driven and high achieving community. But this community is also very supportive and that network means it can be OK for things to go wrong! Successful expatriates become different people acquiring new skills whilst on assignment. They often start to behave and think like the locals, to greater or lesser degrees, while on international assignment. On return, some of their habits and behaviours may be unfamiliar or even uncomfortable to people back home. Those who have settled well in their new country don’t necessarily want to return home. It’s really easy to mention things that they believe their adoptive country did better. ‘Reverse culture shock’ can happen when returning to a place that looks like home but has not been for several years or even decades. Because it looks like home, it can be more difficult to manage than outbound shock because it is unexpected and unanticipated.
So when repatriating, it’s important to take the same approach as you would to the next assignment. Since repatriating, I have been a member of a group on Facebook run by Naomi Hattaway Founder of the ‘I Am a Triangle’ global movement. There are regular posts from people repatriating either in anticipation or when they are back home and struggling.
When you are finding life difficult, it is important to have a toolbox of strategies to have available. As I discussed in an earlier article on expat resilience, it is also essential for both the returning parents, children and adolescents to have appropriate ‘social scaffolding.’ The return home can be stressful because of low interest.
Facts and figures:
According to a 2014 BBC report: ‘16% of employees bolted within the first two years after a global assignment ended, up from 11% in 2012. What’s more, 41% of expatriates returned to the same position they had before they went abroad’ despite working within a global context and dealing with global issues.
“The repatriation process clearly remains the Achilles’ heel of many global mobility programmes. While employers focus on finding the best candidate for the international transfer on the front end, they often fail to help expats make a successful transition to a rewarding new position that capitalises on their global experience.
‘In addition to disappointment with the new assignment, returning expats may also be frustrated by colleagues’ lack of appreciation and interest in their adventure abroad; often coming back from being very big fish in a little pond. ’
When planning your return, think carefully about the following aspects:
DREAMS – how will you achieve them?
FEARS – how will you prevent them from materialising and overcome them when they do?
GOALS – set short term and achievable aims to help you on your journey to your dream based around your Interests.
CHALLENGES – be realistic about your expectations. You can even set yourself challenges as mini achievements towards your goals.
INTERESTS – look for social and group activities around your interests, as it’s easier to strike up a conversation about a shared topic or interest than immediately find common ground with a stranger. Try to find activities and groups where expats may be found, I found our local Toastmasters was predominantly a group of expats in the UK and had a sudden regular weekly fun activity and curry nights out.
Treat repatriation in the same way you your next expat move. Find other expats ‘Triangles’ in your home region, who are looking to expand their friend networks. It’s always nice to meet up with people who have also lived crazy expat lives and ‘get it.’
Steps companies can take to ease the repatriation process
Shell and Adidas are currently leading the way with repatriation practices. ‘The expat has a standard development plan reviewed each year by global skill pool managers, including what the next job might be, according to the BBC report.’ Such a plan might include the following points:
• Acknowledge the value of the returning employee both from a cost perspective as well as gained insight and experience while abroad that is harder to measure quantitatively
• Recognise that the employee and their family may need assistance in readjusting to their home culture.
• Provide repatriation cultural training to raise awareness and provide tools for the adaptation process.
• Provide assistance for not only the returning employee but also to any partners and children so their re-entry process is smoother.
• Ensure that the employee feels they can continue to make a valuable contribution to the organisation. Avoid a situation where the employee feels undervalued or marginalised as an outsider.
• Provide coaching or other professional services so the employee can better integrate into their ‘new-old’ environment.
• Listen. Do not underestimate the frustration caused when few people show interest in the repatriated employee’s experiences, knowledge and expertise gained abroad. It may be hard to quantify the value of sharing new experiences and new ways of looking at things, but the benefits gained by the organisation should not be lost. After all, this is part of the reason why the employee was on an expatriate assignment in the first place!
• Re-orientation (the reverse of cultural awareness training) to get up to date with company, social, political and technology developments back home e.g. out of hours expectations, etc.
• Consider home job mentor.
• Bridge the gap with intranet, internal social networks and technologies.
Be open to meeting new people rather than expecting to fit back in with friends who have not moved from the area.
Announce your return on Facebook – this led to an invite to a cocktail night from a previous acquaintance on my first night back! She was very interested in hearing all about Moscow, unlike many people who were not necessarily able to imagine or visualise my experience and didn’t want to spend the evening poring over photos that meant nothing to them! We ended up laughing hysterically over all my run-ins with the authorities! For those of you who remember me ‘я из понедельника.’
Start with a realistic goal: doing one new thing or something on your to-do list every week.
Lucy Kenyon SCPHN, M.Med.Sci., RGN is a Specialist Community Public Health Nurse, with a background in occupational and environmental health. She has a keen interest and expertise in the relationship between people and their environment. Prior to moving to Moscow in 2009 she was involved in pandemic planning for Tier 2 emergency services in the UK. She has written specialist articles on health matters for Croner Special Reports since 1997. She is also an expat spouse, who repatriated in 2014 and understands the challenges of day to day issues when living abroad.
Pavone Chris, ‘The Expats’
Hilton Patricia, ‘Mother Without a Mask’
Russell Helen, ‘The Year of Living Danishly’
Bard Elizabeth, ‘Lunch in Paris’
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie ‘Americanah’ – a personal favourite
Declan Mulkeen; ‘2Steps companies can take to ease the repatriation process;’ Training Journal; 8 October 2013 https://www.trainingjournal.com/articles/feature/steps-companies-can-take-ease-repatriation-process
Khalaf, H. (2016). ‘Funny how you miss expat life: a comical look at adapting to home after the UAE.’ The National. Thenational.ae. Retrieved 23 January 2017, from http://www.thenational.ae/arts-life/film/funny-how-you-miss-expat-life-a-comical-look-at-adapting-to-home-after-the-uae
Maura McElhone; ‘Back in Ireland, I feel a sense of belonging I missed in the US.’ Coming back has given one returned emigrant a new understanding of what ‘home’ means; http://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/generation-emigration/back-in-ireland-i-feel-a-sense-of-belonging-i-missed-in-the-us-1.2845735