As globalization continues to expand, an increasing number of workers choose to explore professional opportunities outside of their home country. With new possibilities also come the many challenges of living abroad, and research has highlighted the extreme stress that many people feel after migrating to another country for employment.
Complications of Moving Abroad
A study published in the International Journal of Mental Health outlined some of the many sources of anxiety faced by individuals who move abroad to live and work. Researchers and mental health experts from several organizations collaborated to determine which causes were predominant among expats, and how levels of stress varied among US employees who had international origins compared to those of American citizens.
According to their data, expats working in the United States were three times as likely to report feelings of depression and twice as likely to experience anxiety. Common causes of expatriate unhappiness included feelings of isolation due to the sudden lack of a social group, difficulties overcoming a language barrier, complications accessing medical or professional services, and general culture shock. In the early stages of transitioning to a new country, people also cited visa and travel issues high on the list of stressors.
Challenges of a New Workplace
Concerning work in particular, expat employees mentioned a number of cultural concerns. These included adjusting to a new life-work balance that was different from that of a prior position in their home country, understanding societal norms in workplace interactions, and catching on to nuances of casual or professional language.
When unaddressed, these issues caused a variety of reported effects, such as complications in one’s family or marital relationships, stress-related physical and mental health concerns, and a subsequent increase in the likelihood that a person would self-medicate or turn to drugs or alcohol.
Helping Employees Manage Stress
All companies, particularly those that hire a large number of workers from outside the United States may want to keep these points in mind when planning staff training and development. According to the researchers, several key qualities lead to expatriate success, including emotional stability, openness to new experiences and cultural norms, and optimism.
Although human resource staff can only go so far in encouraging some of these attributes, they can design company employee training programs that emphasize the components’ importance and make it easier for workers to access internal as well as external resources.
Perhaps the easiest benefit for employers to provide is foreign language coursework that focuses on both verbal and cultural understanding. Communication is key, not only for conducting business matters efficiently, but also in terms of fitting in. Employees who are proficient and comfortable speaking the language most commonly used in the workplace will have a higher likelihood of succeeding both professionally and personally.
From a business standpoint, ideal client communication is not just about having subject matter expertise, but also being able to present this knowledge clearly and effectively. Companies may want to focus training for employees who speak English as a second language on understanding industry-specific vocabulary and other nuances of professional communication. For instance, address the cultural norms that may be expected during client interactions in addition to important terms and phrases.
Of course, language proficiency can help employees feel more comfortable within the workplace as well. Being able to converse easily with coworkers can mitigate the stress of being in a new environment and help employees feel like part of the team. It can also increase their likelihood of participating in social activities with fellow workers. As employment is typically a significant aspect of people’s lives, the happier workers are in the office, the more positively their jobs can affect their emotional well-being.
Why It Matters
In addition to promoting a diverse and positive work environment, companies that care about expatriate success in the workplace stand to benefit financially. According to data cited by the researchers, the average cost of expat assignments can run as high as $300,000 to $1 million – second only to CEOs in terms of monetary commitment for individual employees. Considering that up to a quarter of all foreign workers leave positions within a year and a vast majority cite difficulties in adjusting to the new environment and professional culture, this trend can present a huge financial burden for the business.
Companies should keep communication with international workers open and be prepared to address both common problems and worker-specific issues as they arise. Whether corporate training is done online or in person, sessions should focus on mitigating the stresses of moving to a new country and integrating smoothly into the professional environment. Human resource staff may want to check in with international workers occasionally, particularly during the early months of their employment, to ensure that they’re transitioning well. Encourage employees to feel comfortable raising any issues that they experience, and provide both internal resources and external recommendations they can consult if they feel stressed or overwhelmed.