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Overcoming obstacles in expat assignments

Updated 19 Apr 2017

While it's all too easy to have rosy expectations of an expat assignment, the reality is that moving to another country for a work opportunity is often a difficult process.

It is, of course, assumed that there will be a few snags when relocating, but serious problems can also arise, bringing severe implications with them. Here are some of the most common problems faced by expats on assignments abroad, along with some tips on how to cope.

Family issues

The problem

More often than not, expat assignees bring along a spouse, and possibly one or more children, when they relocate for work. While the family acts as a portable support network, it can also create issues, particularly if the accompanying spouse and child struggle to adjust. For example, a spouse accustomed to working full-time may suddenly find themselves in the role of a stay-at-home partner or parent. For many people, their sense of identity and purpose is aligned with what they do for a living, so they can feel at a loss when they are no longer working. Meanwhile, children may struggle to adjust to a new curriculum at school and might find it difficult to make new friends.

The solution

Preparation is key. Those bringing partners and children with them on expat assignments should endeavour to tackle these problems in advance. Firstly, communicating with your partner and child about their concerns ahead of time can make a world of difference. Then, once in the new destination, remain attentive to your spouse and child and watch for any warning signs of unhappiness. Be careful not to assume that if you're settled in, they are too – everyone adjusts at a different pace and faces their own unique challenges.

Cultural and language barriers

The problem

If you're moving to a country where the majority language is different than your own, this can cause obvious difficulties and can affect everything from making business connections to navigating everyday life. Cultural nuances, in particular, are especially likely to get lost in translation. However, even in destinations where the language barrier isn't an issue, differences in culture can still cause misunderstandings and awkward situations, not to mention possible feelings of isolation and difficulty fitting in.

The solution

While this problem is unlikely to be circumvented completely, pre-departure preparation can ease the transition. Specifically, cultural training and language lessons are both good ways of preparing for life in your new home. There are many companies who specialise in this. In addition, in many locations around the world, locals are more than happy to help a foreigner learn their language. More often than not, they greatly appreciate any attempt to speak it, no matter how bumbling or mispronounced.

Threats to health and safety

The problem

Not all expat assignees will face issues when it comes to health and safety, but for those that do, they can greatly affect their quality of life and stress levels. This is especially true of 'hardship locations', where there is known political instability or a high crime rate. Expats assigned to such locations are often well compensated by their employers, but although this makes everyday life just a little more comfortable, there can still be an emotional and physical price to pay.

The solution

In this case, having a detailed repatriation plan is important, as the prospect of returning home can be good motivation to stick it out. If employers haven't offered a hardship allowance for such an assignment, expats shouldn't be afraid to request one, especially if it will be used to mitigate the situation with access to good healthcare and/or appropriate security measures. High-quality housing, safe transportation and good schooling may also be hard to come by in these destinations, so make sure that the relocation package you've been offered can cover these costs.

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