I am repatriating – again! – moving back to the UK this summer after nearly six years in Qatar. The last couple of times I did this (2006 from Philippines and 2011 from Kazakhstan) I was working for an international company that did a good job of easing my transition back into an organisational environment which, whilst familiar in many ways, was also deep in the throes of (yet more…) change. I hadn’t been away that long (a year or two each time) so on the one hand that helped, but on the other it meant a fair bit of job switching and personal upheaval in a few short years. But each time, I was lucky in that I moved straight back into a job – my employer supported me well. This year, being self-employed, I am on my own, but at least I have some clue about what to expect having been through it before. What if I was repatriating for the first-time?

Not every company pays as much attention to supporting its employees – and their families – when they return home as they do to when they go on assignment in the first place. The support required for repatriation can, unfortunately, often be underestimated.

Do you have employees who undertake international assignments? How do you support their repatriation in a way that is truly effective?

Just like expatriation, repatriation can be unexpectedly difficult and overwhelming. If an employee steps straight into a new role back home, whether in the same company or a new one, then at least s/he has an anchor, a focus for the days and months ahead. If there is no role available immediately, how should that transition be handled? And if there is a partner and children involved – which there invariably is – then that presents a whole other set of issues to work through; what role should the company play?

Whatever the situation, there is the challenge of just getting used to living and working somewhere else again. It may look like “home”, it may sound like “home”, but actually it can feel very unfamiliar. This can be so unexpected as to be just as disorientating as expatriation. What people expect to feel when they come back isn’t what they get. This is reverse culture shock, which can be difficult to navigate, precisely because it is so unexpected.

It may look like “home”, it may sound like “home”, but actually it can feel very unfamiliar.

In her book “Homeward Bound: A Spouse’s Guide to Relocation” (Expatriate Press Ltd. 2000), Robin Pascoe defines reverse culture shock as:

“…simply the shock of being home. It’s the reverse culture shock you experience in your own country when you visit places that should be familiar to you but aren’t; try to interact with people you should feel comfortable with but don’t; or face situations you should be able to handle but can’t. There can be no simpler way to explain it. Re-entry shock is when you feel like you are wearing contact lenses in the wrong eyes. Everything looks almost right”.

Feeling like a foreigner in a new country is to be expected; feeling a bit like a visitor in your own home is not.

“Re-entry shock is when you feel like you are wearing contact lenses in the wrong eyes. Everything looks almost right”.

The experience of being an expat can bring about great personal and professional development. It can lead to deepening self-awareness, a broadening of knowledge and skills, and it can bring changes to the outlook we have on life. And whether we like it or not, we cannot avoid seeing our home with a fresh perspective. This can be at once rewarding and unnerving, both for the repatriating expat and family, but also for their friends and other family members back home.

Even if the expat has stayed in regular contact with friends and family whilst on assignment, the home and work environments haven’t stayed static; things will have changed in ways that aren’t immediately obvious and these issues can cause friction, especially when getting together with family, friends or colleagues, who may expect the repatriated employee to fit back into their old life as if they had never left.

Lack of support for repatriation can result in higher rates of employee attrition.

It is known that lack of support for repatriation can result in higher rates of employee attrition. The 2016 Global Mobility Trends Report by BGRS* found that attrition rates for assignees returning within the previous two years was higher than for those who had not been on assignment.

Ensuring that, whilst away, the employee has a mentor back at the home office so that s/he stays up to date and “in mind” will definitely help.

However, it’s how an organisation plans ahead for repatriating its employees that will have the best effect, including strong resourcing management, well in advance of the return date. And the provision of re-integration training and guidance which doesn’t just focus on the employee but includes the family as well – their well-being and successful transition back into day to day life – can be pivotal to the success of an employee’s return. Repatriation can often be the most challenging part of the whole expat experience, for employees and for their families.

What sort of challenges do people face?

Some examples of the challenges that people may face are:

Professional challenges

  • Loss of visibility and isolation; feeling undervalued or marginalised at work
  • Changes to the home base office feel unfamiliar e.g. reporting lines, physical environment, policies
  • Adjusting to a new role, which takes time
  • Colleagues not able to relate to international experience or perspectives
  • Returning to a role that doesn’t have the apparent status or autonomy previously held
  • Partners, who may have given up a career to become an expat, feeling directionless
  • Struggling to re-enter the job market

Personal challenges                                                         

  • Making assumptions about how quickly it will take to fit back in
  • Unrealistic expectations of life at home and how that has changed
  • Social readjustment to relationships with friends and family
  • Difficulty supporting family members experiencing reverse culture shock
  • Loss or confusion around personal identity and role
  • Loss of confidence and feelings of isolation
  • Settling children back into schools and other routines of daily life

…and quite often, the professional and personal meld together.

How can coaching support the repatriation process?

Re-integration training and guidance will provide an excellent environment in which to identify and discuss the challenges that people face when repatriating. Enabling these issues to be voiced and come to the surface is a positive step.

What’s needed then, to be truly effective, is a way of supporting the employee or partner to actually address those issues. This is where repatriation support needs to move from being generic – however thorough – to being personalised. Everyone’s experience of being an expat and then returning back home is different. Line managers have an important role to play but may not always have sufficient time to dedicate to their employee at what is a critical time.

There may also be work-related matters that the employee is reluctant to raise or even fearful of raising with their line manager. There could be issues that the employee and partner don’t know how to raise with each other and just need a bit of time and space to each have a confidential conversation with a trained coach who can support them to identify ideas to resolve their challenges.

This is where repatriation support needs to move from being generic – however thorough – to being personalised.

A professional coach can support people to dig deeper and explore their specific challenges in more detail than a generic re-integration program can. A coach will also encourage people to articulate what’s really getting to them; sometimes, just having a chance to air frustrations and thoughts can be a huge relief and can help move someone forward. And a coach will challenge people to commit to actions that will make a positive difference – a simple, personalised, re-integration plan can be a powerful and effective tool because it will have been created and is owned by the individual.

Finally, professional coaches are trained to listen. Really listen, with boundless patience.

Listening to someone and creating the space to be heard in this way is enormously beneficial. Day to day support from managers, colleagues, friends, family members and others, is all good and will contribute to the quality and experience of someone’s repatriation. But providing a coach to work in partnership with the repatriating employee (and partner) on what matters specifically to them, will not just be hugely appreciated but will have a demonstrable impact on how quickly and effectively an employee settles back into their work and home life, greatly enhancing the chances of a successful repatriation for everyone involved.

Siobhain Whitty is an ICF certified Coach, Mentor and HR Consultant, with personal experience of living and working as an expat and of coaching many other international assignees.