Mental Health and Global Mobility: How to Make Relocation a Positive Experience for Your Expat Employees and Their Families

Mental Health and Global Mobility: How to Make Relocation a Positive Experience for Your Expat Employees and Their Families

Maria Magdaleena Lamp
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The pandemic changed the way we think about work. The months many of us spent in isolation took their toll on employee mental health, but also—finally—started a real conversation about mental health in the workplace (early on in the pandemic, we took a deep dive into mental health for remote teams.)

Employees who relocate, with or without families, have been feeling this stress for years, before Covid-19 ever came along. The isolation and disorientation that some expats feel during and after the big move often go unnoticed. Without a close network of family and friends to rely on, it is up to the employer to help out wherever possible. 

Luckily, many companies are beginning to realize that employees and their families need support beyond just packing boxes—but truly adjusting to life in their new city. Being proactive in your approach to the psychological effects of employee relocation can help new international hires feel safe every step of the way and creates a work environment where it’s not only okay, but encouraged, to ask for support. 

Here are some steps you can take to support your new hire before, during, and after relocation.

Normalize conversations about mental health

In 2019, employers were just beginning to understand the prevalence of mental health issues in the workplace and the need to address the stigma surrounding mental health. Fast forward to today, and employers are finally starting to take it seriously. Initiatives like mental health days, 4-day work weeks and counseling benefits are a step in the right direction, but are only scratching the surface of real change. 

The real change starts with not being afraid to talk about mental health in the first place.

  • So... Start. Talking. Yes, you the boss, the manager, the HR person. Lead by example. Talk about challenges you’ve faced, your wins and your losses. Sharing your story can help give a narrative to the struggles your employees may be having, as well as feel more open to sharing stories of their own, without feeling embarrassed.
  • Workplace mental health = positive topic. Why is it that we can talk about our tough workout at the gym, but we can’t talk about how alone we feel in the office? We talk about healthy lifestyles and eating habits as ways of maintaining our physical health. Yet talking about regular therapy as a way of maintaining our mental health still tends to feel uncomfortable. It’s time to be proactive and positive in how you talk about mental health. Change the dialogue. Make it known that your team can access mental health services now, or any time, not just when they’re on the brink of a meltdown
  • Create a company policy on mental health. Let your team know what services are available and how to access them. Whether it be through health insurance plans or helping employees find a therapist. Many challenges cannot simply be overcome by a mindfulness app or breathing exercises.

Nothing should ever be lost in translation

Relocation can be both scary and exciting. There are many ways to contribute to making it mostly exciting. Expat employees will have questions and lots of them:

  • What about visas, work permits, etc. for me and my family?
  • What will life in [insert city name here] be like? Is it safe?
  • What neighborhoods have good schools?
  • What is covered in my relocation package?
  • What if it doesn’t work out?

While relocation services like Jobbatical can help with the immigration part of the equation, be sure to have some answers to the other questions ready.

  • Find or create a guide to your city, covering all the basics from where to buy groceries, to doctors, to schools to restaurants. Something that may seem obvious and insignificant to you may not be for someone who’s never been to your city. Ask other expat employees for their feedback and advice on relocation: What was hard, what was easy, what do they wish they’d known before moving?
  • Make it a point of checking in regularly with your new hire. Sometimes even a quick message to ask them how they’re doing lets them know you’re looking forward to them joining the team. 
  • Create a support network before relocation. Let your new employee virtually meet the team before moving. If possible, assign a buddy the new employee can reach out to with questions or concerns. It may be easier to speak with a co-worker than a boss about everyday things, and they’ll also gain insight into your workplace culture.
  • And what if it doesn’t work out? No one wants to think the worst, but sometimes it just doesn’t work out. While your employee contract most likely had a clause about this, your employee may have questions. Be open, clear, and transparent about expectations.

The relocation package: think outside the box

Relocation packages matter, and one size does not fit all. People are different. Some are homeowners, some are single, some have families, some have pets, but they all have one thing in common: Understanding that moving can be a logistical nightmare.

  • Recon. Moving to a new country is a big deal and no amount of travel articles and research will tell your employee how it will really be until they experience their new city in person. The pandemic showed us that pretty much every part of the hiring process can be done online, but what about inviting your hire (and their family) for a visit to see the office, get a feel for the city, and start the process of looking for a place to live, so that when they do arrive they can move right into their new home.
  • If the above is not feasible, consider offering temporary housing for a month or two, rent-free, so that they have time to look for a new rental or buy a house. We all know that it’s easier to rent a place in Tallinn versus Paris or Berlin. It also gives them time to explore different neighbourhoods and learn about school districts and test out dog parks before committing to a more permanent abode.
  • Miscellaneous expenses. Flight tickets for the whole family, car rental, temporary storage for belongings, packing services, home-selling assistance, moving insurance, school relocation assistance, the fee for changing a driver’s license, etc. The list goes on and on. Have an honest chat with your new hire about their expectations and their actual needs when it comes to moving, so resources aren’t wasted on things they don’t actually need.

Making friends

Sometimes it can be the little things that really make a difference, like having someone meet your new employee at the airport, taking them for a tour of the city, or even out to lunch. Give them time to settle in before jumping straight into work, time to establish routines, familiarize themselves with the city, their neighborhood, and find a home (like we already mentioned, sometimes you don’t really know where you want to live until you’ve seen it in real life).

  • A good welcome package goes a long way. Include information about opportunities to learn the local language. List expat groups, activities, and places (outside of the office) to meet people. Create opportunities to make local friends, for both adults and children, to avoid the expat bubble, which can eventually get in the way of full integration.
  • Soften the culture shock. Moving from Canada to the US may seem easier than a move from the US to Estonia—every place has its own cultural nuances. A little bit of cultural training goes a long way and with some tips about what to say and not say, as well as some cultural context, it will make getting settled in much easier.

Pay attention to spouses and children (and pets)

Often we miss the difficulties expat spouses and children may be experiencing because our interaction is only with the employee. But did you know, for example, that studies show that moving is harder on children than adults? And that spouses having trouble adjusting can be a factor in decisions to move back? Spouses may have a harder time finding work in your country, so helping them create a professional and social network is crucial for ensuring that everyone is settling in. The same goes for children.

  • Organize child-friendly events, or even pet-friendly ones.
  • Look into settling-in programs for spouses, like the Re-Invent Yourself program that Estonia offers.

Onboarding that never stops

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again. Onboarding is key. According to a 2019 survey, 50% of respondents said that they did not feel “settled” in their new city until 6 to 12 months in. Companies offer a lot of support before and during relocation, but the after is just as important. It would be a shame to lose someone great after six months because they were feeling like they didn’t fit in. 

So set expectations, letting them know that you’re there for them—although obviously not 24/7. Healthy boundaries extend both ways! But even after a year or so, don’t simply assume that your expat employees never need to hear from you again. 

Making your employees’ mental wellbeing a priority doesn’t have to feel like a burden. Nor is it your responsibility to make sure every person you hire, plus all their spouses, children, pets, and houseplants are 100% happy 100% of the time. But if you create a healthy work environment where mental health is prioritized and not stigmatized, people will feel empowered, supported, and—ultimately—that they matter.

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