Managing the Expat Aftershock

February 7, 2017

Recently I’ve caught up with a number of people who have returned to Australia after living and working abroad. Whilst some have relocated with their employers and others are independently managing their own transition, all have spoken about the mixed emotions of being ‘home’ and the restlessness they feel in learning how to blend what is often regarded as two worlds. Although it certainly isn’t always a negative experience it is nearly always a challenging one – and one that often surprises many who are trying to navigate it.

As the founder of the Insync Network Group – a network supporting returning expats and their spouses – I hear almost daily about the challenges of reconnection. For many there is a feeling of angst as they attempt to ‘fit back in’ to a country and lifestyle that they know only too well but no longer feel as strongly connected to. Whilst many feel very strongly about ‘being Australian’ and recognise that they use to belong, there is a niggling fear of no longer knowing how to… or perhaps wanting to. This is invariably coupled with a realization that there is a whole lot more to navigate and not really knowing how to go about it.

Whilst most of us who have lived and worked abroad for any extended period of time are familiar with the term ‘reverse culture shock’, very few of us were (or are) prepared for the extent to which the effects can be felt. Sadly, neither are many of the organisations that expats find themselves working for. With research suggesting that up to 20% of returning employees leave their organization within the first 12 months of arriving home (and even more in the second), there is no doubt that the pain is a shared one. What we also know is the pain is only set to rise for organisations as companies increasingly use international assignments to grow their talent capability and respond to the demand for globally minded leadership.

In the case where individuals and organisations share the pain there also needs to be a shared solution with both parties recognizing what the potential challenges are, how to watch out for them and what action can and needs to be taken to help fast track the reconnection process. Aside from the obvious health and wellbeing issues that can all too easily arise (research suggests that up to a third of all repatriates suffer depression) the organisational cost of failing to reconnect in a meaningful manner also has huge impacts on careers, engagement, productivity and retention.

Most of us when we jump on a long haul flight, expect to experience some of the effects of jetlag.  What we don’t anticipate is that as well as crossing time zones there are a number of other zones we need to cross, each bringing with them their own form of lag if not managed well. Whilst this can be true at either end of the assignment, it is in the repatriation stage that the lag tends to occur for the longest.

With what I term the 3 primary zones of repatriation to navigate, individuals and organisations need to ensure that attention is given to each of them.  Consideration should also be given to how spouses and children navigate each of these zones, as they too will have their own unique experiences and challenges to overcome.

Three Primary Zones Of Repatriation:

  1. Professional: (Business + Career) Lack of meaningful ways to leverage international career experience is often cited as one of the primary challenges for repatriates. Robust internal and external networks are required to ensure that knowledge, skills and relationships are maximized and smooth integration into what is often a significantly changed business is key.
  1. Psychological: (Social + Emotional) Often the most under-estimated zone! At the heart of repatriation is reconnection – reconnection to people, lifestyles and ways of working. Working out where we best belong after such significant life changing experiences is no easy feat. How we re-engage with old ties and establish new circles of friends is instrumental to not only how we feel about being home but also how fulfilled we are by it.
  1. Logistics: (Physical + Financial) Too often the planning by both individuals and organisations starts and stops in this zone. Whilst there are numerous areas of compliance to attend to, flights to be booked and finances to be transferred, these areas when managed well don’t tend to produce too much lag time or long-term impact because of their transactional nature.

Just as jetlag generally requires time and a resetting of the body clock, the repatriation process requires time and a reset of mindsets, lifestyles and careers. It also takes planning – none of us get off a plane after a long haul flight ready to run a marathon and yet that’s essentially what many do when repatriating their lives and careers. Bursting head first into the logistics with very little time dedicated to planning for the other two critical zones.

The reality is living and working overseas changes us. It changes the way we think, live and work. It changes individuals; it changes friendship and family dynamics; and it changes work dynamics. Robin Pascoe, author of Homeward Bound, makes a great analogy when she writes “Re-entry shock is when you feel like you are wearing contact lenses in the wrong eyes. Everything looks almost right”.

It is possible to be a ‘happy repat’. It does take time, resetting and a whole lot of planning but when you find ways to leverage your experiences; you, your family and your career will all thrive.

If you have recently arrived home or find yourself still navigating the repatriate journey, why not connect with the Insync Network Group where you will meet other globally like minded professionals and adventurers.

As always I would love to hear your thoughts below.

If you would like to know more about the Insync Network Group or how to manage significant location moves, please call Margot on 0400 336 318.