How International HR can help expats avoid trailing spouse syndrome

May 09, 2019

Studies show the number one reason for expat failure are ‘family related issues’. These may include trailing spouse syndrome, career issues or lack of practical support. This is a significant problem for International Human Resource (IHR) Managers.

Expat failure is a costly exercise for a business. Research by PwC and the Cranfield School of Management show most expat assignments cost over $300,000 per year and almost one in ten returns early from expatriate assignment. International Human Resource Managers have an important role to play in minimising expat failure within their organisation.

To put an effective plan in place it’s important to understand some of the family-related issues that may cause an assignment to fail.

Making the decision to move is a challenging one. It is going to take the expat candidate and their partner time to analyse:

  • The degree of change
  • Impact on their careers
  • Impact on their family

Ensuring all elements have been carefully considered by both parties will help the candidate and their spouse make the right decision and prevent difficulties further down the line.

Making an international move for an expat role can be stressful for the partner of an expat. The logistics coupled with the emotional wrench of saying goodbye to family and friends can make this period difficult. Resentment can build if the partner does not feel well supported during this time.
If the move is a significant cultural change, a period of culture shock is not uncommon. Although you may provide pre-assignment training to help the assignee cope, similar training may not be available for their partner.
Once moved, the expat assignee may be busy with their new role, building connections and making an immediate impact in their work environment. It’s crucial to remember that their partner may not be working, so the absence of family and friends might be more acute for them.
IHR managers can help trailing spouses succeed in a number of ways: 

Ensure partners are included in pre-assignment training because they are likely to face many of the same challenges in their new home. Language barriers and adjusting to a new culture will be just as difficult for them.

This also shows the assignee commitment from your company towards their family, helping to foster a feeling of unity between the couple.

Elements of pre-departure training that partners should be present for include:

  • Cultural overview
  • Language lessons
  • Education
  • Spousal associations (if available)
  • Practical support for the move
Helping the assignees partner obtain a work permit and navigate the job market in their new country may be invaluable to the overall success of an international relocation. A spouse who is used to having a career of their own may really struggle if they can’t find a job in their new location.
A well-designed relocation package that includes financial support for the move allows the assignee and their partner focus on the move itself rather than the logistics of how it is going to happen.
Traditionally trailing spouses may have been women but this is not the case anymore. Ensure provision is made for the challenges a male trailing spouse may face in a new country. It is also important to consider LGBT+ employees and how their partner can be supported during a move. Special provision will need to be made if they are moving to a country that is hostile towards same sex couples. 
Away from the logistics and emotional toll of moving abroad, don’t let access to quality healthcare become a concern for assignees and their partners. Ensure all your expat employees are part of an international corporate health insurance plan.