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Reverse Culture Shock (or Why Do I Hate Being Back Home?)

Mary Dougherty – Shepell-fgi

When employees begin an international assignment, they often experience “culture shock” in the host location.  Many companies provide support services to ease the transition for these families, ensuring a quick adjustment and a productive and satisfying international assignment experience.  But what happens when the assignment is over, and the family heads home?

  • 25% of expatriates leave the company within 2 years of repatriation (National Foreign Trade Council survey)
  • 69% experience significant “reverse culture shock” (Bureau of National Affairs, Washington)

Coming Home is Not So Easy
Repatriation is not as simple as it sounds.  “Reverse Culture Shock” is often experienced by those returning from an international assignment, and this can have tremendous impact on professional and personal adjustment.  The challenges inherent to living in a different cultural context for a significant period of time do not end with adapting to the host culture; they continue through the process of returning home and re-adjusting to what was left behind.  In fact, it is often those who have adjusted most successfully abroad who have the most difficulty returning home.

It can take up to 18 months to adjust and reintegrate after an international assignment; adjustment issues effect employees and their families both personally and professionally.  Understanding the problems that they may encounter upon reintegration is the key to a successful repatriation.

What to Watch For
Here are some common symptoms or situations that repatriating families encounter:

  • irritability/ resentment
  • sense of difference and disconnect
  • disappointment
  • inability to concentrate
  • low morale
  • change in values/attitudes
  • marital conflict
  • fatigue
  • parent/child conflict
  • educational/adjustment problems for children
  • depression
  • feeling unappreciated personally/professionally
  • decreased productivity
  • loneliness

What Can Employers Do?
One way to lessen the negative impact of repatriation is to provide support to the employee and their family in the form of a “Repatriation Debriefing.” Skilled repatriation counselors can help these individuals recognize the symptoms of reverse culture shock, and provide techniques to manage through it effectively.  To support family members, providing an opportunity for the employee and family to candidly and confidentially discuss repatriation challenges with regard to both work-related and family experiences is key. This process provides an opportunity to examine and explore the potential difficulties of returning home, as well as assisting in problem solving and goal setting.

Employers should also carefully manage repatriation assignments to ensure that expatriates are retained in their organizations, and that the new skills acquired during the international assignment are recognized and leveraged.

Finally, don’t minimize the importance of taking care of the family.  When an employee relocates, so does their family, and the impact on a spouse and children can be profound.

These steps will help minimize turnover amongst repatriates, preserving your international assignment investment, and also ensure that your repatriating employees are quickly and effectively reintegrated into their home country.

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