Organisations must not overlook ‘trailing spouses’ when relocating their staff

Author: Dr Stephanie Schnurr | Date: 16 Nov 2016

Dr Stephanie Schnurr explains why a happy family is crucial to a successful overseas work assignment

Stephanie SchnurrThe success of an overseas work assignment depends on the experiences of the entire family – not just those who go to work. An organisation sending its staff overseas should ensure the work transition goes smoothly for its employees – but it should not overlook those who ‘trail along’.
Many employers offer training or coaching for their employees before a move overseas, and provide further advice at their new destination. But it is surprising when there is nothing in place for the ‘trailing’ family.
While children often experience a new country as an adventure and usually settle relatively easily, ‘trailing spouses’, who are mainly women, often find this transition much harder and take much longer to adjust. The transition is often particularly difficult for those who were in employment and who have had to put their career on hold.
In a study, we interviewed women who accompanied their husbands on overseas work assignments. Most of these women expressed dissatisfaction with their current situation and many regretted the move. Although they generally acknowledged the benefits of their new lifestyle, they missed their ‘old lives’ and many regretted not working.
There was a strong sense among these women that they had lost their identities and many were struggling to come to terms with their new lives. Even those women who said they used this ‘time out’, as they called it, to have children, described ambivalent feelings – on the one hand they thought motherhood was rewarding, but on the other they often felt bored and missed their previous jobs. Many of the women we spoke to were deeply unhappy and most of them wanted to move back home as quickly as possible.
This dissatisfaction poses a real challenge to employers – especially if it results in early termination of a work assignment.
So what needs to be done to make the transition smoother for spouses and ensure they are as happy and integrated as their working partners?
Incorporating spouses more systematically into preparation programmes and offering them training and coaching before, during and after relocation, would be an excellent start. Wherever possible, organisations should assist spouses to continue their own careers at the new location or explore alternatives. They should also encourage a healthy work-life balance for their employees so that expatriates can spend more time with their family – especially in the often-difficult first year.
Families themselves should also be aware of these issues and potential difficulties before the move. Taking time to talk to each other, and maintaining a healthy work-life balance, are effective steps that may ease the transition. It is also important to avoid falling into the gender-trap, where suddenly the man is the breadwinner and the woman is excluded from important decisions.
Whatever approach is taken, it is important not to overlook the health and wellbeing of trailing spouses.
Dr Stephanie Schnurr is associate professor of applied linguistics at the University of Warwick. The study interviewed women who had accompanied their husbands on assignments to Hong Kong.