Every year thousands of people decide to leave the UK to work abroad, joining the 232 million international migrants living in the world today. Some leave work behind to move with a partner who had a posting or job abroad, hoping to find an opportunity to use their skills too. Though potentially exciting, it’s a major upheaval and even more so if you also have a family or are about to start one.
Marinda Seisenberger, a coach, international communication culture expert and veteran of working abroad, has written a book to help the growing number of people travelling abroad for work. Expat: The Easy Way tackles some of the main issues, from intercultural communication to the practicalities of living, working and socialising in a different country.
She says: “International relocation is a serious step. Lack of preparation and little awareness of what to expect can make it daunting and even dangerous,” she says.
Being prepared is about more than just learning the local language, she adds. It’s about cross-cultural skills and being open to new ideas and ways of doing things, including local bureaucracy.
It’s also about having the right attitude, she says, and a lot of determination. Local relocation agencies can help with initial orientation advice.
Seisenberger talks through preparations before leaving, such as forwarding mail, health checks, researching banking, contacting utility companies, having some job opportunities lined up and whether to take some nick nacks or furniture that reminds you of home [she recommends this for children]. She also gives some tips for how to deal with what she calls “expat exhaustion” and “culture shock” which often sets in after the first few weeks. She says there are often several phases to culture shock – the honeymoon phase, followed by the frustration phase, the adjustment phase, the mastery phase and then reverse culture shock if and when you return home. The important thing is to be aware of the symptoms of those phases and to address them by doing something that jolts you out of, for instance, feeling homesick.
Seisenberger’s book contains a chapter on taking your kids abroad. She says the most important thing is to give children a sense of stability and consistency. She recommends encouraging them to learn the local langauge and to make local friends, keeping in touch with home and celebrating traditions from home. She also has tips on choosing the best school for your child and points out the benefits that they may gain long term from having being “third culture” kids.
She also has a chapter on supporting a spouse and family. She says many expat assignments fail because families are not seriously considered and “often feel so frustrated that they simply want to return home”. She says in about two thirds of cases, a spouse’s dissatisfaction is cited as the main reason for returning home early. This can be due to identity crises, for instance, having to adapt to a situation where they have less independence than they had at home. They may, for example, find it difficult to get a job. She counsels adopting a team approach to moving abroad and says partners need to ensure they do not become isolated and find something to do that fulfils them as well as building a support network.
It is also important to integrate as much as possible by using opportunities to make local friends, she says. Work is a great place to start.
One of the final chapters tackles some of the difficulties of working abroad. Seisenberger says things are never as you expect them to be, companies are not the same in different parts of the world just because they share the same name, international teams can be hard work, titles and perceptions of power differ radically from country to country and the first assignment abroad is the hardest. She has some specific advice for those who have to lead a team in a different country. She says international companies don’t invest enough in international communications culture training to help support staff who are posted abroad. Nevertheless, it can be a very positive experience both personally and financially.
Seisenberger ends with a chapter on repatriation, which she says companies often don’t prepare employees for, assuming it will be an easy process. She says it is important to ask about repatriation support before you go abroad and also to keep in some form of contact while you are there. And she adds that companies need to take advantage of the added skills that an employee who has been posted abroad might bring.
*Expat: The Easy Way is published by Panoma Press, price £11.99.