Expats want more help when they return home, global survey finds

by Ray Clancy on January 12, 2016

Expats need more support from employers, particularly when it comes to local culture and lifestyle, but also when they return home, according to a new global study.

It suggests that coming home can be just as tough as becoming an expat and only 54% of those surveyed said that their employer offers a formal repatriation programme.

Expat-TravelMeanwhile, overall global mobility is increasingly appearing more like a lifestyle choice than an economic obligation, so it is becoming a career unto itself, says the survey from Cigna Global Health Benefits and the National Foreign Trade Council (NFTC).

The poll of more than 2,700 expats working in 156 countries also found that 81% of people who work outside of their home country are male, middle-aged and have a family. But many expats are leaving their families at home for various reasons.

Today, many assignment locations are in emerging markets or a remote location, which is one reason expats might leave their families at home. Some 38% of survey respondents said that they did not take their children with them on assignment.

Although most expats still hail from the United States, their numbers are down by 10% from just two years ago and down 24% from the 2001 survey. The report suggests that globalization is likely a factor with more companies having operations across the globe with access to qualified local talent.

US tax regulations may also be a reason for the decline, making expatriation of US nationals more expensive than expats from other countries, it adds.

Results from the survey indicate that certain gaps, whether real or perceived, still exist between the resources employers say they provide to expats in comparison to what employees say they need.

More than three quarters of respondents said their employer provides help with moving household goods, setting up utilities and other settling-in needs, as well as help with finding doctors and getting vaccinations. Yet, globally mobile employees say they need more, particularly related to local culture and lifestyle.

Only 20% of information sent to expats before assignment covered local lifestyle resources such as grocery stores, child care, etc. “Prepare employees better for the cultural shock they will experience, particularly for newcomers,” said one respondent.

“Globally mobile employees and their families want reliable and consistent communication from employers from preparing them for assignments before they depart and ensuring they feel appropriately supported and connected while away,” said Leah Cotterill, vice president, North America Client Management, Cigna Global Health Benefits. “While many employers are making strides in this area, more can be done to better facilitate communication concerning global mobility programme features and services for employees and their families.”

This survey results demonstrate that global mobility is no longer just an economic obligation, but is instead a lifestyle choice evolving into a career unto itself. The spirit of adventure, the potential to hone one’s qualifications and the appeal of living abroad remained the greatest influences on the decision to accept a first assignment.

Indeed, the proportion of expats who indicated they went abroad because they wanted to versus feeling they had to, was down by 12.5% since the 2013 survey. Additionally, the number of expats who have been on five or more international assignments increased sharply to 25% from 18% in 2013. This may indicate that global mobility is becoming an occupation in its own right.

Expats find a return home can result in culture shock. Changes in finances and taxes for the household were a big concern, as was finding new employment. “My family and I will probably need as much (if not more) help repatriating than we have needed on assignment,” said a respondent.

Many expats recommended beginning repatriation arrangements at least three months before departure. “I’d like to see a repatriation program in which we are given news of the return home at least three months prior to the move so we can prepare,” said another on a return home after assignment.

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