Early Counseling Prevents Family Relocation Crisis

Pre-departure psychological counseling reduces the risk and expense of failed international and domestic relocations. The average cost of moving a manager to a foreign country can be up to four times the individual’s annual salary. In planning for the move, companies typically provide cultural information and counseling, but too often neglect to prepare employees and their families for the strong emotional impact the move will have on them. Relocation, even if it means returning home, causes a tremendous amount of stress and anxiety – whether the family moves to or from the United States or from one state to another within the United States. This situation may lead to difficulties in the work environment and trouble in the home.

Early Counseling Prevents Family Relocation Crisis

Pre-departure psychological counseling can help a family prepare for the inevitable traumas they will experience in the relocation process. When conducted by specialists, this counseling need only take three to five hours and will typically cost a company less than $1000 (in the United States) – a small price to pay to avoid a potential relocation failure.

Consider the following account of a family (the names of the family members have been changed) that had been relocated to France from the United States and their ensuing problems. Had they been given the requisite counseling, the troubles they experienced probably would have been avoided.

A POSITIVE BEGINNING IN THE OFFICE

Bill is a 38 year old executive living in Paris for the past 10 months. When first told he would be transferred, Bill felt that it would be unwise to refuse the assignment. The new position involved responsibility for a much larger area, which would be very helpful in his move up the corporate ladder. The relocation assignment would last about two years.

Sally, to whom he has been married for six years, reluctantly agreed to move although it meant giving up here career as an advertising executive. They took their three year old son with them and agreed that since Sally could not work in France (she was unable to secure a transfer from her employer), this would be a good time for her to have another child (she is now three months’ pregnant).

In the United States, Bill was a senior manager in a large manufacturing firm. He was well-liked by both corporate management and his employees, who viewed his management style as excellent. Although Bill is aggressive and innovative, he is also sensitive to his employees’ needs. The company felt he would be a great asset in helping it expand its European market.

During the first few months of their relocation, Bill was well-received by the new office employees in Paris, who viewed him as a respectful and jovial, yet hardworking manager who expected result. Each morning, he greeted his employees with the customary handshake, making others feel at ease in his presence.

The Problem Started at Home

However, as time went on, senior managers and Bill’s employees began to notice a slight but nonetheless marked change in his demeanor. He began to look more sullen, became more short-tempered, and sometimes appeared to have difficulty focusing in their usual strategy meetings. The change was gradual; it took about eight months for another manager to notice a decrease in productivity in Bill’s department, an increase in tension among his teams, and the fact that Bill had missed a few meetings.

Bill, when approached by this individual, told the manager that he enjoyed being in Paris and that everything was fine. However, the manager could see otherwise and decided to keep an eye on the situation. After another two months of noticing that the situation appeared to worsen instead of improve, the manager decided to contact a colleague at the home office in the United States and report his concerns.

A senior executive, in response to this telephone call, flew to Paris to meet with Bill. Over dinner, Bill confided what had been happening. Sally was apparently having a great deal of difficulty adjusting to the move. She was bored, felt as if her contribution to the family was less important because she was no longer contributing financially, and felt a great loss of her family and friends back home. Sally became increasingly concerned about having her prenatal care and birth of her child overseen by French physicians, even though she was told that the medical care was excellent.

As a result, she was depressed, short-tempered with her husband, and often cried. The couple had begun to argue a great deal. They had few friends and almost never socialized with others. Recently, Sally started to hint that she was seriously considering moving back too the United States with their child. In fact, they started having arguments about this possibility because he did not want her to move and felt as if Sally was not trying hard enough and was not being supportive.

PROFESSIONAL ASSESSMENT OF THE PROBLEM

In response to the senior executive’s concern, management decided to consult Linda Walter, LCSW, President of the Cross Cultural Counseling Center, a psychological counseling firm that specializes in relocation issues. When the headquarters management met with Ms. Walter, they decided to send her to Paris to meet with the family. After all, Bill’s relocation had already cost the firm close to $500,000. His inability to effectively manage his teams and /or bringing his wife back to the United States could conceivably double this amount.

Ms. Walter spent four days with the family. During her assessment session, Bill and Sally identified the following concerns:

• Sally felt that she did not play as important a role in the family now that she no longer brought in a high salary

• Sally felt unable to do things independently and to develop her own support systems because she was spending full time with their three year old son. This arrangement was the result of their discomfort in sending him to daycare in a foreign country

• Sally felt she could not assimilate to the French culture because she did not have a good command of the French language

• Bill was anxious about his new job and the management of his new team. As a result, he had been working long hours and often seemed preoccupied at home. Sally used to view him as a supportive husband, but he now often seemed aloof.

The couple had an active social life back in the United States and now rarely ventured outside of their home because they did not have a baby sitter they knew and trusted and did not have any friends there.

Sally, who had a very good relationship with her obstetrician in the U.S. was unsure of her new obstetrician in Paris. Even though she visited the American Hospital in Paris (where the couple decided to have their child), she was still apprehensive about giving birth in a foreign country. In addition, she needed to travel a long distance to see her English-speaking doctor and often met with him alone because Bill did not want to take too much time off from his new job.

Both Bill and Sally sorely missed their families and friends back home.

Although their son had an initial difficult adjustment (i.e., there were so many changes he needed to get used to, including his diet and surroundings), he had started to settle in after two months. With the increased strain in this parents’ marital relationship, he was beginning to test their limits more than would normally be expected of a three year old.

Both Bill and Sally voiced concerns that the marital difficulties had become severe enough that they feared a separation would eventually be inevitable.

INITIAL INTERVENTION TACKLES PROBLEMS ON SITE

Ms. Walter decided that several items had to be established before she returned to the U.S. Her initial intervention included a long marital therapy session with Bill and Sally which ended in their agreement to not separate and not to talk about separation for four months. She also gave them suggestions to strengthen their relationship and to fall back on some of the patterns that had been successful in their marriage in the past.

Further, she found an expatriate marital therapist from the U.S. and had them set up an appointment for the following week. She chose a therapist from the U.S. rather than just an English speaking therapist because the couple exhibited a tremendous amount of homesickness. Ms. Walter believed they would give more credence to and feel more comfortable with someone knowledgeable about and experienced with a similar upbringing and life style.

Counselor Provides Practical Suggestions

Ms. Walter worked with Sally to accomplish the following:

• Obtain the names of French language schools and choose one in which to take classes. As Sally felt unable to assimilate and communicate because of her inability to speak French, a better command of the language would obviously help. It would allow Sally to meet other people with whom she might become friends and give her an activity outside of the home. Finally, it would give her a chance to experience success with a new endeavor.

• Obtain information from and make a commitment to join the American Women’s Group in Paris, which offers social, cultural, and educational activities for women from the U.S. This group is located in most large European cities. The purpose of this suggestion was to increase Sally’s social activities and give her further opportunities to do things outside of the home.

• Obtain information from and make a commitment to join the Women’s Institute for Continuing Education at the American University of Paris, which offers a variety of programs and services in English (there are also organizations of this type in most major European cities.)

• Obtain a list of English-speaking baby sitters from the groups just listed and make appointments for interviews. Ms. Walter had Sally set up two interviews, which they conducted together.

At the same time, Ms. Walter had Bill do the following before she returned to the US:

• Speak with two other U.S. employees at his firm to ask permission for his wife to call their wives. This action was taken in the hope of setting up a mentor for Sally, who would find it extremely helpful to hear other people’s experience in similar situations. These women would explain to Sally what life was like for them when they first moved. They could also be extremely helpful in giving her pointers that would make living in Paris easier. Sally would also have the opportunity to make friends and have someone to call with questions and concerns.

• Inquire from headquarters about developing a peer mentor of his own, which meant developing a relationship with someone who had similar experiences but was now working in the U.S. Eventually, Bill developed a telephone mentor relationship.

Finally, Ms. Walter had Bill and Sally do the following together before she left:

• Call English-speaking nursery schools and set up appointments to visit them together.

• Agree to go out once every two weeks and explore the city together for a least two hours each weekend.

With all of this in place, Ms. Walter left Paris. She gave the couple her telephone number and encouraged them to call if necessary.

SECONDARY INTERVENTION TACKLES PROBLEMS AT HEADQUARTERS

Ms. Walter returned to the U.S. and set up a meeting with the International Human Resources Director at the headquarters of Bill’s firm. She reported on her assessment and interventions and encouraged the firm to provide more support and assistance for the couple.

The firm agreed to arrange a week-long trip home for Sally and their son so they could see family and friends and retrieve several items from storage that Sally felt were important but had neglected to make a part of their home in France. Ms. Walter encouraged her to do this because if one is going to set up a new home in a foreign place, it is crucial to fill that home with personal belongings that have significance and meaning in terms of “home.” Even if these items are large, bulky, or difficult to move, they should not be left behind.

To avoid Bill and Sally feeling so out of touch with those they left behind, the firm also assisted them in setting up Skype accounts for themselves, family and friends. It is often the case that expatriates feel out of touch with the home office and less valued because they are not aware of changes that take place there. For this reason, headquarters agreed to make sure Bill was kept up to date with the politics and policies in the firm back in the U.S. Finally, the Director of Human Resources agreed to talk with Bill within the following five months to see if Sally still felt dissatisfied because she was unable to work. If this was the case, headquarters agreed to begin to help her look for a job in Paris.

CONTINUED INTERVENTION TACKLES PROBLEMS ON SITE

Before Ms. Walter left Paris, she advised Sally to find an organization in which she could volunteer her services, which might fill the void of not working. In addition, she encouraged Sally to find a play group to which should take her son so he would have outside stimulation and she would have the opportunity to meet other mothers with children of the same age. This activity would increase her opportunity to learn about baby sitters and day care centers, and make new friends.

Ms. Walter gave the couple a list of things to do to help them learn to assimilate into the new culture:

• Take the time to explore what the new city had to offer by taking walking tours and/or organized tours.

• Join a religious organization and other organizations such as college alumni associations and international groups.

• Take classes.

• Work with U.S. students living abroad or international students going to the U.S. to study.

• Read published material in English about the new city, which would tell them where to find items particular to the U.S. culture if they were needed.

Ms. Walter strongly encouraged them to Skype with family and friends at home so they could hear the voices of those they left behind. She also encouraged them to set up a system where family members and friends could share news from Paris with one another. This sharing would enable Bill and Sally to receive more communication from home with less effort. Finally, Ms. Walter suggested they communicate with home more often. Staying in touch with loved ones left behind often gives expatriates more strength to venture out to meet new people and develop new support systems.

INTERVENTION LED TO POSITIVE OUTCOME

The result of this particular situation was positive. Bill and Sally were able to strengthen their relationship and once again become supportive of each other. The couple developed a large social network due to the organizations and clubs they joined, which made them less homesick and better able to develop a sense of belonging to their new community.

Thanks to the mentor program, Bill became more comfortable in his new position and less anxious about what he was missing at home. He was also able to – “on the spot” – ask questions of someone about the cultural differences of doing business in France and Europe. This availability proved helpful when he was confused about others’ reactions to him or his programs, so that he was able to rapidly learn answers and rectify any uncomfortable situation he may have unintentionally created.

Sally welcomed her new activities and quickly made friends. She began to feel important and self-confident again; thus, she was happier. Sally was more willing to help Bill with his anxieties about work and was less anxious about giving birth in a foreign country.

SUGGESTIONS FOR MULTINATIONAL EMPLOYERS

The outcome is not always positive. What would have happened if Bill had not initially shared his concerns with the executive that took the time to visit with him in Paris? What was quickly set into place might not have been. The relocation may have failed, costing the company hundreds of thousands of dollars. To avoid a potential crisis or worse, disaster, Human Resources should do the following when an employee accepts an international or national relocation assignment:

• Assign a Human Resources representative to each relocating family and establish a face-to-face relationship with the family before the move. The Human Resources representative should let them know what difficulties to expect from the move. The family should feel free to contact this individual if any concerns arise while on the international assignment with the understanding that personal concerns will be treated confidentially.

• The Human Resources representative should establish informal procedures so the individual will call the family at least quarterly the first year. These calls will determine whether the family has settled in and will let then know they have not been forgotten and still have support at home.

• Provide the family with a list of home country therapists in the city to which they will be moving. If trouble arises, they will have someone to call.

• Set up a mentoring program for both the employee and spouse before the actual move.

• Most importantly, provide the family with pre-departure psychological counseling. Many firms offer pre-departure cultural counseling to teach the family cultural differences between the home and destination country. Although this training is essential, it is not enough. It is also necessary to provide them with psychological counseling to better prepare them to handle and cope with the emotional ups and downs that are inevitable with such a move.

Undue stress and anxiety can mean the difference between a successful international relocation and failed one. Providing a family with pre-departure psychological counseling supports the notion of “crisis prevention.” This action is less costly to a business and more just and helpful to employees and their families than “crisis intervention” – a response to an already existing crisis situation.

This article was written by Linda Walter, LCSW and was published in the International Compensation & Benefits Journal. Although it speaks about an international relocation, its suggestions are certainly applicable to a national relocation.

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