Stress and anxiety are the side effect of any move. Throw into the mix a transition to another culture on the other side of the world, and anxiety can compound significantly. The sheer logistics of relocating to another country are overwhelming and complex. Then there’s the emotional journey and personal upheaval that have the potential to affect employee performance, and risk the success of the expat assignment.

The potential hazards of mismanaging or ignoring anxiety range from poor performance at work, to a decreased engagement and satisfaction in personal life. Thus, the overall mental wellbeing of the assignee and their immediate team can be in jeopardy.

Causes of anxiety during a relocation

Anxiety is a very personal emotion, and the extent to which we experience it depends on levels of resilience. An international relocation, however, does present a number of anxiety triggers that, if forewarned and managed, can be minimised. These triggers include:

  • Financial uncertainty: this is usually the number one cause of anxiety in the context of a move. The burning questions are: will I be worse off as a result of this move?; How much will it cost?; Will I be financially worse off as a result?
  • Anticipatory stress can present itself early when the prospect of an international move is on the cards. A sense of not knowing what to expect, or knowing what information is needed to ease the anticipation, is at play here. Having so many unknowns will cause anxiety in people to varying degrees, depending on their personality and their personal circumstances.
  • The prospect of upheaval and disruption can be the source of great anxiety—packing up a home, and interrupting schooling and/or a partner’s career path can take its toll.
  • Decision making: this can take many forms during the course of a relocation, and can cause varying levels of anxiety depending on the pace of the move. Decisions ranging from financial to career and other personal matters will need to be made, and require adequate information to reduce stress.
  • Leaving the family and social circle can be the cause of many a refused expat assignment. Distance can be insurmountable for some, and the idea of being far away from loved ones can cause huge amounts of anxiety and upset.
  • Guilt can manifest around putting one’s career ahead of the family stability, interrupting a partner’s career aspirations, upsetting the children’s social circle and schooling, and leaving family and friends behind. Whatever the cause of guilt, it can lead to anxiety and stress without adequate recognition and confrontation.
  • Culture shock, homesickness and loneliness can all result in anxiety and stress. The sense of displacement and not belonging can be very isolating, and is often compounded by missing loved ones far away.

How to reduce expat anxiety

A level of anxiety in the course of any transition is to be expected; it’s a natural human response to stress.

However, relocation anxiety can be minimised, and in some cases, the cause can be eliminated altogether.

Thorough preparation and adequate planning is the key to success, and reduced anxiety levels. While it’s not always possible to eliminate stress completely, having plenty of time to prepare, in conjunction with having the necessary support and information, can go a long way to reduce levels of anxiety within the relocation process.

Providing employees with information required to make decisions—for example, expected timelines for the move, steps and milestones involved, cost of living data, lifestyle information to enable personal and financial decisions to be made—can help to reduce the level of unknowns and subsequently reduce anxiety.

Informing your employee what level of support you are prepared to offer from the outset, will help to manage their expectations, and in turn, minimise anxiety.

Support can take many forms. At the very least adequate financial provisions for the relocation and set up need to be delivered in order that the employee and their family are not out of pocket or financially disadvantaged as a result of the move.

Family and spousal support is also important. Leaving social networks and landing in a new country is daunting. Providing support to ensure the family is settling in can pay dividends to the overall success of the move. Knowing that their family is happy will provide the employee mental freedom to perform in their assignment.

Final thoughts

Anxiety, and it’s personal nature cannot be resolved wholly with a relocation or mobility policy. However, structures and processes can be put in place to ensure that, at each step of the way, the very personal needs, concerns and expectations are acknowledged and managed to give the best chance of assignment success.