Finding Balance Abroad

Finding Balance Abroad | Human Resource Executive Online Overseas life can be stressful, but few employers are helping expats achieve work/life balance.

Saturday, August 1, 2009
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Traditional concerns about the expatriate community have, for the most part, revolved around housing, compensation and the plight of the increasingly professional, male-trailing spouse who must try to continue her career abroad.

Many U.S. expats made their moves before -- or just as -- work/life balance became a growing concern back home, spurred on by the growing number of men and women trying to juggle the demands of corporate and family life while both held down high-level, high-stress jobs.

When it came to merging the two and addressing work/life concerns among the expat community, however, it was -- and continues to be -- largely a matter of "never the twain shall meet."

But why? Aren't international assignments fraught with work/life challenges? Doesn't that create a great deal of additional stress for expats? Experts certainly think so.

"It's very stressful to be taken out of your normal circumstances and put into an entirely different environment and be expected to function normally, as if nothing has changed," says Mila Lazarova, assistant professor of international business at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia. "It's really quite unrealistic to expect that."

According to the 2007 Expatriate Work/Life Balance Survey, the most recent by New York-based ORC Worldwide, 65 percent of expats report feeling the strain of managing the demands of work and home, leading to amplified anxieties at home and at the office.

Among the findings: Expats are working longer hours abroad than in their home country -- an average of 13.4 more hours per week -- and are plagued by late-night phone calls, text messages and e-mails, extensive regional travel, and language and cultural differences.

Then there are the stressors of living in hostile, remote or difficult locations. At the same time, expats are often unable to participate in activities that brought them joy in their home location and have lost their support network of friends and extended family. All this combines to cause significant stress.

Yet, just 21 percent of expats say their organizations have either formal or informal policies addressing work/life balance. Perhaps even more alarming, three-fourths of respondents believe their organizations are not committed to helping them achieve a healthy balance between work and home.

Proper Preparation

Much of the problem lies in inadequate preparation, according to Siobhan Cummins, executive vice president and managing director of Europe for ORC Worldwide in London. "Companies aren't very good at briefing expats," she says. "Very often, they will rush them off to the assignment location without providing any destination services or cultural and language orientation."

Organizations must provide expats with these kinds of preparatory steps and, in doing so, must be realistic about the situation, says Cummins, so there are no surprises when expats touch down in new countries. When headed to an emerging country, for example, she says, "it's far better that the expats know what the conditions are going to be instead of being sold a bit of a beach holiday idea."

That's certainly the case at London-based AstraZeneca, which has just under 350 long-term, short-term and commuter assignees in 140 countries worldwide. Tessi Romell, research-and-development-projects and HR-effectiveness leader, reports few complaints about work/life balance among the drug giant's expat population. She believes that's because the company has the proper mechanisms in place to adequately prepare assignees for life in a different country.

"It's a combination of things that the company is doing and having a culture that is supportive of work/life balance, as well as encouraging individuals themselves to think about their own work/life balance," she says.

As soon as an assignment offer is made, each potential AstraZeneca expat is paired up with an international assignment manager who explains company policy and briefs them about opportunities for cultural and language training.

Throughout the assignment, the expat stays in touch with his or her IA manager, as well as his or her home manager, an arrangement that may help organizations overcome one of the most significant issues -- that expats tend not to tell anyone when they are having problems.

"Many of them are being told from different corners of the organization that this is an expensive proposition -- 'We are spending a lot of money on you' -- so they are not going to complain, particularly in this economy," says Chris Buckley, manager of international operations for St. Louis-based Impact Group Inc.

Romell experienced the expat lifestyle firsthand. Based in Lund, Sweden, she recently returned from a two-year assignment in Shanghai, China. Her relationship with her home manager remained so strong throughout her assignment, "if I sent her a text on my mobile, she could tell just by reading it that I needed to talk to her."

Prior to leaving her home country, Romell and her husband participated in a two-day workshop sponsored by AstraZeneca and presented by Stockholm-based Scandinavian Airlines System International. The first part of the workshop addressed issues related to leaving -- and returning to -- Sweden, while the second part focused on the specific destination location, including differences, considerations and do's and don'ts.

According to Romell, such a workshop "tells you about the culture you are going to ... and if there is a work pattern that is requiring ... a lot of working hours; that is something you get briefed on." Similar training is offered to AstraZeneca international assignees globally, although the vendor may potentially vary by location.

Romell and her husband also each took 25 hours of Mandarin language training, provided by AstraZeneca. A week after Romell arrived in China, the company arranged for her to attend a four-day workshop she says was designed to help expats further "get in the way of working and the way of living" in the host country.

AstraZeneca also strives to connect new expats with those who have already served on assignment in the same location. Just as she was leaving China, for example, Romell received a call from an expat who would soon be traveling to that country.

"I got a call from someone who said, 'OK, Tessi, talk me through what it's like and what I should think about,' " says Romell. "AstraZeneca is very good at linking people together like that."

Shining a Light

Even if expats are told to expect pretty dire circumstances, giving them such a glimpse of reality is better than leaving them in the dark, says Marsha Egan, CEO of The Egan Group Inc., a Reading, Pa.-based professional coaching firm.

"The people who know it and believe it and expect it are going to do better than those who pretend it's not going to happen," says Egan. "Acknowledging all of that can be a tool to being able to manage the stress."

Part of the reason so many expats report problems with work/life balance is that they "don't think it all the way through" prior to going on assignment, says Buckley. By giving employees a realistic picture of what life in a foreign destination will be like, employers increase the likelihood of a successful assignment because those who think it will be too much tend to self-select out.

In fact, companies could further boost their chances of a successful assignment if they paid more careful attention to selection themselves, says Rebecca Powers, principal consultant with the human capital practice of Mercer in San Francisco.

"Companies need to ask themselves, 'Who has a sense of adventure? Who's likely to thrive and enjoy living in another country for a year or two?' " she says.

Choosing the right people up front can also help ensure expats will be less likely to struggle with work/life issues. That's the approach taken by Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services. At any one time, CRS has roughly 380 expats responding to emergencies and working on "social economic development" in mostly undeveloped locations in Africa, Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America. CRS seeks out people who have experience working in third-world countries and who find such opportunities exciting.

"We look for people who have already lived in cultures where there's different food and [where] travel is difficult, where you are away from your family and you can't always use the phone," says Dave Piraino, executive vice president for human resources. "As a result, the people we get are really motivated to work and live and be in solidarity with the people in the country."

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That's not to suggest CRS isn't concerned about expats' work/life balance. On the contrary, the organization has a number of special programs -- including assigning personal coaches, or country representatives, to each expat (see sidebar) -- to help employees deal with everything from security concerns to stress reduction.

"It's a concern for people here in the States too, but when we send people overseas, the agency sees our responsibility to those folks [as being] a little stronger because you are asking someone to go out of their culture, out of their home to a foreign place," says Piraino. "We try to ensure that they have a good balance between life and work and also that they get a lot of support living in a country that's not their home country."

Living in a third-world country often makes work/life balance harder to achieve, says Egan, primarily because familiar services, conveniences and activities may not be available -- and popular means of stress reduction, such as exercise, may be hard to come by due to a lack of health clubs, fitness centers and similar facilities.

To mitigate that problem, CRS has actually gone so far as to bring in gym equipment to isolated locations such as Darfur, so its expats will have a means of burning off the stress.

Prior to leaving on assignment, expats meet with a wellness specialist who briefs them on stress and health issues. In case of a medical emergency, CRS provides insurance through International SOS, which pays for evacuation.

And should an expat or spouse be pregnant -- and find herself living in a country where the medical facilities are questionable -- she can opt to return to the States early. CRS often puts pregnant expats in temporary jobs while they await the birth of their child.

Admittedly, one of the most stressful factors of living in a third-world country is a concern over security. Expats who are constantly worried about their own safety and that of their family are going to have a difficult time achieving any kind of work/life balance, says Piraino.

To help expats set aside their security concerns, CRS implemented a policy that allows them to self-evacuate at any time. Their regional representatives back in Baltimore can also order an evacuation if conditions become such that employees' security is in question. Those expats may be assigned to another location if conditions don't improve.

The Self-Policing Factor

While it is incumbent upon employers to provide services that help expats achieve an acceptable level of work/life balance, expats responding to the ORC 2007 Expatriate Work/Life Balance Survey said they realize they, too, have a role to play in managing their own stress. No actual statistic was provided by ORC, but its researchers said it was an issue that came up frequently in written comments from respondents.

This kind of self-policing often involves learning when to say no, according to AstraZeneca's Romell.

"There is always tons of work you can do," says Romell, "but you have to be part of setting limits and finding a work/life balance that is accurate for you because each individual has a different definition of what work/life balance means."

When it came to her own work/life balance, Romell established boundaries that enabled her to have time with her young children. She would leave work at 5 p.m. each evening, have dinner with her family and then put the kids to bed before making herself available to take any necessary cross-continental phone calls beginning at 8 p.m. She credits the company for allowing her the flexibility to set the kind of boundaries that would foster better balance.

"AstraZeneca is really good at allowing people to manage their own time and being aware that we are working across different time zones," says Romell. "It's always something that we try to take into consideration so we don't have people [taking care of work matters] in the middle of the night."

While work/life balance may seem like a foreign concept in some host locations, such as China, other locations might actually be more focused on the issue than the expats themselves. In those instances, it may be the expats who have difficulties adjusting to the work/life balance already in place.

"In some locations, the local approach to work/life may be quite a bit more balanced than the expat is accustomed to," says Powers. "Then, the question becomes, 'To what extent does the assignee have the ability to take on that balance or are they trying to drive a New York City-style results orientation in a rural village somewhere?' "

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