Expat happiness: the constant pursuit of success abroad

28 November 2018

A global assignment is a professional engagement first and foremost. The business requirements of an employer are usually the main reason that you (and your family) relocate.

But what about the expat’s reasons for accepting such a challenge? Professional advancement is one of them, but traveling is also attractive on a personal and social level – both to the assignee and to his/her family.

We all like to explore the world we live in, and the opportunity given by a global assignment is often too good to pass up.

Unhappiness: the #1 reason for failure

If expats (and their employers) are either careless, unprepared or unlucky – or all 3 at once – they may find that neither goal is fulfilled. If the family realize that they are unhappy in their new host country, the professional part of the engagement becomes ever harder.

To ensure expats and their families really enjoy their time overseas, we outline the 6 key happiness factors relocating expats and GM professionals need to consider.

Get these right, and you’ll have a great time – which will also increase the chances of a positive professional outcome. So – what does being happy really mean for an expat?

1. Happiness = being prepared

[11% of expats cannot speak a word of the local language

You are venturing into the unknown. Indeed, that is part of the fun. But life is going to be very different during your time abroad. If you can minimize the ‘shock’ factor, you will be in a better position to enjoy the difference instead of suffering it.

  • Do your homework. Get to know the culture of your new host country – and get ready for change! Why not try to learn a few basic phrases in the local language?
  • Prepare the family. Accentuate the positives to younger family members – don’t forget that this is an adventure for them too. If they are involved, your children will find this a memorable and fulfilling experience for the rest of their lives.
  • Say your goodbyes. Not just to family friends, but aim to close this chapter of your life without leaving any loose ends. The experience of packing up – deciding which items to take and which to leave, sell or put into storage can be refreshingly cathartic.

2. Happiness = being organized

only 20% of expats register to vote before leaving home

On a more pragmatic note, there are many other points that need to be considered before leaving. Sorting these will enable you to relax – and reduce the chances of administrative problems getting in the way of an enjoyable time abroad.

Our pre-assignment checklist is a useful start, but mainly you will need to think about:

  • Money. You will have negotiated an appropriate package with your employer (if not, it may be a good idea to consider the options available before you sit down to discuss terms). These discussions will confirm what’s included in the ‘deal’, as well as tax implications.
  • Professional role. Make sure you and your company have a common view of your working role, your goals and your KPIs.
  • VISAs/permits. Make sure all paperwork is completed, signed and activated. For most assignees, this will be handled by the global mobility department.
  • Accommodation. This can be agreed in advance, although many assignees use short-term accommodation (usually a hotel) while they look for something more permanent. It is often easier to make this important decision once you are there. Making contact with a local relocation agent in advance is a good move though – or simply consult any FAIM-certified moving company.
  • Schooling and childcare. Again, it is a good idea to do your research in advance, especially with regard to choosing the right school.
  • Special requirements. Are you taking family pets with you? Will you be taking your car? Do you have any unusual requirements? One advantage of using a FAIM-certified relocation partner is that they can handle virtually any aspect of the move – indeed many that you hadn’t thought about.

3. Happiness = being supported

Women are almost 3 times as likely as men to miss family and friends

Even the most organized assignees will need help from back home while they are abroad. A key part of enjoying your assignment is knowing that there are people supporting you

  • Admin/legal support. Some countries are notorious for the high levels of bureaucracy. While you may have most things sorted before you travel, having expert support from the global mobility team or from your FIDI-affiliated moving company is very useful.
  • Communication with head office. The GM department is of course your first port of call for administrative queries. Their support goes beyond problem solving, and regular communication will help you in a number of ways.
  • Links with home. On a more emotional level, regular contact with friends and family at home is a key part of expat happiness, helping to alleviate feelings of remoteness.

4. Happiness = being accepted

Costa Rica has been voted the #1 happiest place to be an expat

As humans, we have a basic need to belong. On a social level, therefore, expats need to feel accepted by the people around them.

  • Expat community. Expats are automatically and naturally supportive of other expats because they share the same situation. It doesn’t even matter what country you come from – as long as it’s somewhere else. Expat communities often form around accommodation areas, churches or even bars and restaurants. All you have to do is find them and you will have a ready-made and enthusiastic social circle to support you.
  • Host company. Assignees of larger companies will often have many colleagues living in the same area. It can be good to make contact with them before arriving.
  • Children. As the mums and dads waiting at the school gates will tell you, children make friends easily and this also helps parents to build their social circles. This is an important aspect to bear in mind when choosing schools – although remember that your child will perhaps have a more “authentic” experience if their schooling takes them outside the expat bubble.
  • Dating. Cultural differences can affect the way the dating game is played, but within expat communities, familiar rules and standards apply.

5. Happiness = being healthy

82% of expats in Austria rate the public healthcare system positively

Living in a new country – and often in a new climate – exposes you to new and varied health risks. However, the healthcare infrastructure in most expat destinations is excellent, and expats should be able to manage health problems abroad as well as they would at home.

  • Healthcare provision. Many countries offer free public healthcare – or via reciprocal agreements such as using the EHIC card in EU countries. If private healthcare is necessary (or simply a desirable perk) it should be negotiated as part of the compensation package.
  • Vaccinations. Expat family members should have all necessary vaccinations before arriving.
  • Medications. You should bring a good supply of any essential (or preferred) medication with you. The drugs may not be available, or may be much more expensive in your new host country. However, do check any local import regulations before packing your suitcases, as some prescription drugs might be illegal in other countries.
  • Mental health/depression. Loneliness – particularly of family members and ‘trailing spouses’ – is the single biggest reason for unhappiness. That leads inevitably to early repatriation and the failure of the assignment. However, where does simple unhappiness end, and clinical depression start? Employers are increasingly aware of the need to consider the mental health of expats and to counsel and support those affected by depression.

6. Happiness = being protected

98% of expats in Singapore feel safe

An expat family cannot be happy if they don’t feel safe – but there are people looking out for you.

  • Company duty of care. It should be a non-negotiable part of your agreement with your employer that you have a safe place to live and work. In recent decades, a small number of highly publicized events have put the spotlight on expat security. While this is unlikely to be a problem in the most common expat destinations, there are places where security is a key concern. In extremis, many employers – especially those sending expats to riskier destinations – will have emergency repatriation policies in place.
  • Consulates & embassies. These have a limited role, but will pull out the stops if one of their nationals is in trouble. You should know where your local embassy is just in case you need it. Most expats only go there if their passport is stolen.

Enjoy your trip!

For the vast majority of expats, the time spent in a new host country is a period of excitement and fulfilment.

The challenge of managing family and professional life in a different country, with its unfamiliar culture, climate, laws etc., should not be underestimated – but thorough planning before you leave, followed by the right attitude upon landing, should help you to enjoy a happy and successful time abroad.

Bon voyage! 

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