The hidden danger of a trip back 'home'
A trip back 'home' for expats is often a welcome relief, but it also spells dangers for the adaptation process in the host country and the success of the international posting.
Fact 1: There is a skills shortage in the Netherlands and recruitment agencies and companies are looking to foreign nationals to fill the human resource gaps.
Fact 2: Expatriate staff is expensive and ensuring they stay for the duration of their contract is cost-beneficial.
Fact 3: The period immediately following a home leave period — for instance, after the Christmas break — is a vulnerable time for the expat. This is a key moment for HR managers to take active measures to ensure the long-term success of the expatriate assignment.
For many expats, the Christmas holiday is an ideal opportunity to take a break from being a foreigner and sink back into a known and trusted environment.
Especially for those who are in their first few years of a new posting, this opportunity to 'get away' can have a critical impact on an expatriate's commitment to a life and career in the Netherlands.
Home leave can generate contradictory sets of emotions: happiness that comes from being 'home' in a familiar environment and the discomfort that comes from realising that home is not quite what it used to be.
On holiday back home, expats will once again find themselves in a situation where they 'fit in'; they are with friends and family, they know how things work and feel they belong.
This can be a time when they become aware of just how difficult the adaptation process to life in the Netherlands is and how alienated they feel.
These realisations may lead them to focus on the good qualities of their home country which they sorely miss.
On the other hand, home leave can also be a stressful occasion. Expats may find that life back home is not quite as they remembered it, that they no longer 'fit' as well as they used to.
Reaffirming or distancing?
The disconnection between their expectations of 'being home for Christmas' and the reality of the experience of 'visiting for a few weeks' can lead to disappointment, alienation and a feeling of powerlessness.
Most expats will experience a mix of both of these emotions, but what potential effect does this have on the future of an expat's (and their family's) commitment to adapt to life in the Netherlands?
For some expats, returning to the Netherlands after their holiday creates — for the first time — the feeling of returning 'home’. This is a major landmark for the expat as they begin to see themselves as belonging here.
They experience returning to a familiar environment, their new house has become their home and they quickly get back into established routines. They become aware of how much they have adapted and created a new life for themselves and have a sense of purpose and achievement.
This positive and reaffirming reaction to returning from a trip back 'home' is the ultimate hope of HR managers as it signals that the expat can see the end of the 'adaptation road' and means that the expat is committed to achieving it.
However, if the expatriate and/or their family felt unhappy in the Netherlands before their holiday, the home leave experience can create the unexpected opportunity of having the time and distance to begin thinking about a new job, either 'back home' or elsewhere.
This is compounded by the fact that in today’s job market, a one-year international assignment is a valid enhancement of a CV and an expat can feel confident that their international credentials have been established.
In this case, the return to the Netherlands may be undertaken with the attitude that their time in the Netherlands is temporary and almost over as the expat actively begins to look for a new job.
This experience makes the expat and their family incredibly vulnerable: they are unaware that their sub-conscious belief that life in the Netherlands is temporary leads to behaviour which further isolates them from creating a happy life here.
A family that focuses their efforts on planning to leave has neither the time nor energy to actively seek to adapt in their host country. This emotional process creates a vicious circle whereby expats isolate themselves which further confirms their decision to leave.
What should HR do?
What can an HR manager do to reverse this process when an expat has emotionally distanced themselves from their career and life in the Netherlands?
The post-home leave period is a crucial time and excellent opportunity for an HR department to proactively support their expats.
It is a time where expats will be keenly aware of what they like and dislike, what they need to make their posting a success and how short or long-term their career goals within the organisation may be.
Key for the HR manager is to approach both the expat and their partner since any increase in commitment to their life and work in the Netherlands needs to be made by both decision makers in the family.
Next, expats need to be made aware of the conscious and sub-conscious impact of the adaptation process and how this may be affecting their behaviour and decision-making.
Furthermore, expats should be supported to become part of a community where they feel supported and understood by others who are going through exactly the same process.
Finally, expats should be encouraged to undertake active steps to deal with the issues they have in adapting to life in the Netherlands.
A major indicator that an expat is committed to adapting to their life in a new environment is that they are developing activities that enable them to 'fit in' to their new life.
Thus, using the opportunity provided by the post-holiday period to provide assistance to — and deal with — an expatriate’s concerns is a cost-effective method for ensuring that maximum benefit is gained from a company’s investment in this expensive resource.
8 December 2006
About ExpatEase and Anne Parker
ExpatEase's mission is to empower both expats and partners to adapt to life in the Netherlands with confidence and ease. ExpatEase has developed a training program that addresses the key factors in non-completion of work contracts, teaches practical skills and provides tools and insight into the psychological process of the expat experience. The program provides an ongoing support structure for the duration of the expat contract. For more information: see www.expatease.nl
About Diane Lemieux
Diane Lemieux is a writer and journalist who specialises in expat issues, intercultural communication and multiculturalism. Her goal is to strengthen the diverse fabric of society through her articles, reports and stories.
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