Why HR support is essential to successful assignments in hardship locations

Why HR support is essential to successful assignments in hardship locations | FIDI

Moving to a hardship location is a move during which expat families require additional support and attention from the moving industry. Expat writer, researcher and author of the book This Messy Mobile LifeMariam Ottimofiore, currently posted to Ghana, explains how global mobility specialists, relocation companies and HR professionals can help the expat family to succeed.

What is a hardship location?

In today’s complex world of global mobility, a hardship location is a term used in both diplomatic and corporate circles to describe a move to a country where living conditions are less than optimal. The United States Diplomatic Service describes a hardship location as a posting which is difficult due to climate, crime, health care, pollution, safety or other factors. Employees assigned to such posts typically receive a hardship differential of between 10 and 35 percent of their salary. If an employee is posted to a hardship location with severe security issues, for example in a war zone, then that comes with an additional hardship allowance.

Questions of war and personal security aside – certain other factors also contribute to a hardship location, such as how remote the place is, the availability of schooling and education, the freedom of speech allowed and the access and availability of goods.

How do you measure hardship?

Many corporations and multinationals assess the overall quality of life in certain countries and categorize the level of hardship, for example on a sliding scale from A to G. In our case, when our family of four was moved from Dubai, United Arab Emirates to our current posting in Accra, Ghana in 2018, my husband’s corporate company told us that we were moving from a hardship level B (Dubai) to a hardship level E (Accra).

How do you measure hardship? | FIDI

It is hard to compare hardship levels. One hardship E country may be very different from another hardship E country. For example, one could be categorized based on security issues, another might have next to no recreational options.

Also beware of “hidden hardships”, such as, the lack of freedom of speech and the blocking of Skype, FaceTime and WhatsApp calls that we encountered in the UAE.

What does it mean to a hardship assignee?

Hardship postings come with additional stresses that the assignee and their family need to be able to deal with. I advise that an expat family being sent to a hardship location undergoes a thorough assessment of their needs to ensure they are equipped to cope. This includes having timely access to information and resources regarding education, medical and health facilities and a backup contingency plan for emergencies.

Don’t ignore the emotional dimension

In my experience, HR managers, international companies and global relocation specialists are good at explaining the practical hardships faced due to safety, security, health etc., but pay little attention to the emotional hardships.

These include dealing with poverty and economic inequality, high levels of distrust or theft, handling the “expat guilt” of being more privileged than the locals, or not succumbing to a “white savior complex” of trying to fix all the problems they encounter in their new country.

expat guilt when moving to a hardship location | FIDI

In a nutshell, expat families posted to a hardship location require support while settling in and an awareness of the practical and emotional hardships and risks balanced with being equipped with the right attitude and expectations to live under the circumstances.

How can HR help alleviate hardship?

I recommend the following type of help from HR managers, international companies, and global mobility specialists:

  • Tailored briefings in line with type of hardship

It‘s important that an expat family receives a tailored briefing that corresponds with the type of hardship location they are moving to, and an assessment of their individual and family needs. Hardship needs to be understood before one can be equipped to deal with it. Awareness, attitudes and expectations are key factors to prepare for, and local knowledge from expert relocation partners can be invaluable.

  • Medical support with options to be airlifted

Lack of health care and access to medical facilities is especially problematic for expat families with children. Lack of maternity facilities and maternal care may also be a limiting factor that needs to be discussed in full. An expat family should be provided with all the medical support they require, including the option to be airlifted or medi-vacuated to the nearest developed country or their home country in emergency situations.

For our West African posting to Ghana, an expat family like ours needed to be given full information on how to combat the risk of malaria, the pros and cons of taking an anti-malarial for the duration of our contract, and access to emergency malaria kits. We are also granted the option to be airlifted to South Africa in case of medical emergencies.

  • Specific schooling support

Schooling is a critical factor for many expat families and consistency of school curriculum is also a further complication. It is important that the expat family is given all the necessary information regarding availability of schooling and the chance to tour schools to choose the right fit for their family.

Moving children within the school year is harder than moving at the start of a new academic year, so HR managers need to factor in timing and be flexible on starting and ending dates. This also includes NOT moving a teenager in the last year of their high school, especially in the IB diploma program. Hardship locations often complicate schooling options, since the assignee may have to work in one city, while the family must live in another city where there is availability of an international school.

  • Personal security

In certain hardship locations, personal security may be necessary either at home or coming and going from the airport or other circumstances. Personal security guards, home security systems and other concessions may need to be provided to the expat family to secure their wellbeing.

  • R&Rs

Living in a hardship post can be draining for an expat family already far away from family, friends and the comforts of home. Most companies and HR personnel need to factor in a ‘Rest & Relaxation’ trip for the expat family or even two per year, to allow them a mental break.

  • Vaccines

It is essential to be fully vaccinated against the prevalent diseases and getting extra vaccines depending on the region. International companies and organizations can help to make sure this happens before being posted to a hardship location, and that there is a chance to receive additional vaccinations when necessary.

Before moving to Ghana, our family received mandatory yellow fever vaccines arranged by our company and booster shots for meningitis for our children. The lack of availability of vaccines in hardship locations is another challenge that expat families have to encounter and thus, they may need help with immunizations pre-move or during home visits.

  • Evacuation plans

In extreme cases of insecurity, an unstable political situation or war, an expat family must have an emergency evacuation plan in place. This is usually granted to embassy officials, and diplomatic assignees, but is equally relevant to employees sent abroad by corporations and international organizations.

  • Commuter set ups

Sometimes, after extensive evaluation and consideration, it is deemed better to leave the family behind in their home country and offer a commuter setup to the expat assignee to a hardship location. A commuter setup requires particular attention to detail and providing relevant support and resources to enable a split family to manage their new reality.

  • Hostile environment awareness training

Depending on the type of hardship location, employees may need to be given training on how to react in special circumstances such as political unrest or kidnappings. First aid training can also be offered as part of this initiative.

  • Provide pre-assignment resources

The expat family should be given access to both online and offline resources. This could mean talking to previous employees and families posted in that hardship location, or following links to relevant websites to gather information and suggestions of online groups to ask all their country-specific questions such as what items to bring with, where to live etc. As an expat writer and blogger, I would also recommend links to any expat blogs that provide a glimpse of living in a particular hardship location.

Finding happiness in hardship | FIDI

Finding happiness in hardship

In conclusion, while moving to a hardship location requires lending extra support to an expat family, it is a little-known secret in the expat world, that often these hardship postings become a cherished memory. Expats become part of an extremely close-knit expat community and have the chance to learn about a new culture that few foreigners have access to.

Hardship postings make the heart and mind grow and I fully recommend all expat families to work closely with their HR, international companies and mobility specialists to consider whether there is one suited to them.

Mirian Navaid Ottimofiore | FIDI

Mariam Navaid Ottimofiore is a Pakistani expat writer, researcher, economist and author of the book This Messy Mobile Life: How a MOLA can help globally mobile families create a life by design (Summertime Publishing 2019), available on Amazon. She has lived in the United States, United Kingdom, The Kingdom of Bahrain, Germany, Denmark, Singapore, United Arab Emirates and Ghana. Her expat writing has been published in Global Living Magazine, Expat Living Singapore, Expat Living Hong Kong, Expat Connect Dubai, Families in Global Transition and Among Worlds Magazine, while her expat life has been featured on Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) on Super Soul Sunday. She currently lives in Accra, Ghana with her German/Italian husband and two children and writes about her expat life, cross-cultural experiences and raising two global citizens around the world on her award-winning blog And Then We Moved To. You can connect with her on FacebookInstagramLinkedIn and Twitter.

Also by Mariam Ottimofiore on FIDI Global: Always an Expat, Never a Repat: What to do when returning home is not an option?


A happy expat is a successful one, regardless of location. Find out more about how to ensure success by reading Expat happiness: the constant pursuit of success abroad


Related articles