According to EY’s Global Mobility Effectiveness Survey 2013, “Family and spouse issues continue to be the biggest challenge that threaten the success of international assignments.”
Evelyn Simpson, of Thriving Abroad, states: “If assignments are being turned down because of dual career issues, organisations are unnecessarily limiting their talent pools and are probably not getting the right people to the right places. If the trailing spouse is dissatisfied, they are less likely to support remaining on assignment or going on to additional assignments.” Organisations that overlook or undermine the influence of today’s modern spouse, do so at their peril.
Once on the assignment, the reality for the expat assignee is that their daily routine of work means that they suffer less from loneliness than their spouse, who has time and an empty home on their hands.
This lack of routine and purpose, coupled with likely relinquished control of their career, can have dire consequences. The guilt and strain that this can put on the partnership can cause serious problems for the family, and ultimately, can result in a failed assignment.
What does adequate spousal support look like?
Ensuring that all members of the family are supported throughout the initial stages of the relocation is crucial. The importance of trailing spouse support lies in its ability to equalise the rate at which the entire family acculturates to their new life.
From the outset, acknowledge that the spouse is a key decision maker and shares the burden of the move and set up in the destination. Opening the lines of communication and contact with the spouse can go a long way to achieving a sense of inclusiveness.
Having a say
What options of services or support would the spouse find useful? Enabling them to choose what would best suit their needs from a determined suite of services provides a sense of care and a personal touch.
Allow the spouse to be involved logistical preparation and help with the move. This includes timelines, shipping, and making travel arrangements. Alerting everyone to what to expect throughout the process can settle nerves and stress.
For the most part, the provision of practical lifestyle information and help is a simple knowledge transfer. Provide a guide of useful resources and contacts, local area orientation, and an information pack about the area—including the rental market, schooling, medical treatment, and public transport etc. The strong sense of isolation and displacement can be overwhelming in the early days. Familiarity helps to bridge the gap and achieve a sense of home much faster.
When moving from one ‘western’ society to another, the offer of cultural coaching may not even be considered. However, subtle nuances are often the source of the most frustration. A basic grounding and overview can limit confusion and time taken to settle in.
Acknowledging the possible career sacrifice made by the spouse can earn goodwill and loyalty. If the spouse is able to continue on their career path with the support of career coaching and help with a job search, this ultimately enhances the success of the assignment and rebalances the relationship.
Nearly always overlooked, the social life (or lack thereof) of your assignee will impact hugely on their happiness in the first 6-12 months of a relocation. Introduce them to colleagues, ‘buddy’ them with someone on the team, organise a social gathering, and encourage networking. Homesickness, loneliness and missing family/friends can be offset if a new social circle is emerging.
Spousal support does not have to bear a huge financial outlay. Simple hand holding, open communication and involvement can go a long way to increasing the chances of success. Should costs and outsourcing be involved, it can be argued that it is a small price to pay if it results in a successful assignment and provides mental freedom for the assignee to perform in their new role.