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Culture shock – What is it and how can expats deal with it?

by jcp
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By: Caroline Walmsley, Global Head of HR, AXA Global Healthcare

As exciting as the opportunity to work abroad can be, the start of an expat assignment can also prove challenging.

The reality is that settling into a new country is hard, and no matter how experienced people might be when it comes to international working, each new assignment offers a unique set of issues to overcome. Global employee benefits research we commissioned last year has shown that the number one reason why international assignments terminate early is because assignees struggle with culture shock in their new location.

But what exactly causes culture shock? Are there specific challenges that organisations can help expats to prepare for? And what steps can be taken to minimise the risk that struggling to adapt poses to an assignment?

Language barriers

It probably comes as no surprise that for those whose language skills aren’t as strong as they might like, getting to grips with the local language is a major cause of culture shock. It’s amazing how quickly an assignee might begin to feel isolated when they begin to realise how difficult it is to naturally converse with those around them. Everyday conversations that might previously have been taken for granted, such as asking for restaurant recommendations, passing the time of day or ordering a coffee suddenly become incredibly daunting tasks. Even if you aren’t trying to hold a conversation, simply hearing a language that you don’t understand being spoken all around you can be incredibly isolating.

One way to counteract this feeling is to encourage assignees to spend as much time as possible learning some of the local language before they move. A piece of research that we conducted prior to the COVID-19 pandemic* showed that 52% of HR decision-makers provided pre-assignment training, such as foreign language lessons, for international assignees before they moved. It might not be enough for them to become fluent but having at least a basic understanding of the local language is sure to help a new expat feel like less of an outsider.

Cuisine

When you’re on holiday or just passing through a new country, the thought of trying new cuisine is often quite enticing. But when an assignee is spending an extended period of time in a different country, being unable to get hold of the foods they’re used to at home can suddenly cause a real problem. Depending on where they’re based, how different the local cuisine might be and even the type of packaging used for foods, it can even be a challenge just knowing what’s actually available for you to eat.

If you’re supporting a member of staff who is moving to a location where the food is markedly different to what they’re used to at home, encourage them to spend time researching foods and brands that will be readily available, together with some key phrases they might want to look out for, on food packaging. Alternatively, help them research how they might be able to get hold of some familiar foods. There might well be an international supermarket nearby, where they can pick up some regular items, or the option to have home comforts delivered online. This is exactly the sort of preparation that can make all the difference when your assignee touches down in their new home and can be especially valuable if they have a specific dietary requirement, intolerance or even allergy.

Time difference

Being able to call or message friends, family or colleagues back home can make all the difference for a struggling expat. There can sometimes be no greater challenge, therefore, than when they’re based in a country so far away that they have to contend with a radically different time zone. Suddenly, there might be no option to call for a quick catch up. When you’re arriving at your desk, your assignee might be going to bed. Having to painstakingly arrange even a friendly conversation can be a reminder of just how far they are from home.

From a workplace point of view, allowing your assignee to work flexible hours, so that they can be online at the same time as their colleagues, can be useful. Likewise, encouraging other colleagues to dial them into conversations using a video-conferencing tool can act as a valuable reminder of their role within the team, as well as an opportunity for some more light-hearted chatter.

As for helping your assignee keep in touch with friends and family, encouraging them to set a routine can help make this process easier. Rather than going through the demoralising process of regularly trying to call their family, only to receive no answer, perhaps you could suggest that they agree a set time each week when both sides are available to speak. These touchpoints can be crucial to ensuring an expat remains happy during their time abroad, so it’s important to help your colleague find ways of making them work.

Adapting to a new location can be tough, with culture shock risking international workers feeling lonely and isolated. If you’re supporting a colleague who’s gearing up for an assignment, make sure you help them take steps to look after their wellbeing, and have an overall positive experience.

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