Beyond Relocation: Organizations must help employees transition

Moving to a new city brings about adjustment on several levels. Counselor Maullika Sharma explains how companies can support their employees and their families in dealing with a move.

Maullika Sharma

I was recently called upon by a company that has a very large number of Indian employees posted at client sites in the US. These employees are in their twenties, some are single, while others are married and have young families. In the recent past there had been a spate of suicides amongst the spouses of this population which got the company to sit up and take notice. What, if anything, were they doing wrong? How could they better support their employees and their spouses? What could they do proactively to prevent any such incidents in the future? Even if they were not suicidal, were there other emotional challenges that were preventing their employees from bringing their whole selves to work while overseas?

My first reaction when I heard this was to connect with my own similar experience, as a young mother and a first-time stay-at-home mom, in a new country and an alien environment, trying to stay sane in isolation. I knew exactly what those employees and their spouses must be going through. I immediately knew I could help. As I started looking deeper into the topic, I realised that my experience was not unique. Everyone in my situation experiences what I did, though to different degrees. Some just cope better than others. I wish I knew then, what I know now. I wish I could have been able to normalise my experiences then, instead of feeling I was weird because of my experience!

Any relocation, whether to a new city or a new country, involves an adjustment at three levels. Firstly there is the general adjustment to living conditions, climate, food, housing, cost of living and infrastructural issues. Then there is the interaction adjustment within existing relationships and the new relationships at home and at work. And finally there is work adjustment in the context of adapting to new work and its expectations. Any change can be challenging, but adjusting to change at so many levels has the potential to make one feel uprooted and anchorless.

Much has been researched and written about the expatriate’s cycle of adaptation which starts with the initial anticipatory excitement about the new opportunity and new exposure clubbed with anxiety about the unknown. There is the honeymoon phase around new beginnings, but then anger and disillusionment set in with the realization of the effort needed for the move and the resultant fatigue. I remember making this move with a three month old infant in my arms,and the deep sense of loss I felt when my home was wound up and the shipment was sent. Suddenly there was no place I could call home! I was literally and figuratively on the road. And that feeling stayed till my new home was set up more than a month later.

As you settle into the new city or country you drop to a new low as the culture shock hits you. Culture includes everything from what people think, say, do, make, eat, wear, and more.They say the world is getting smaller and is like a melting pot. So then why is culture important? Just because we are wearing and using the same brands world over it does not mean we have the same values, or will make the same decisions. Quite like an iceberg, 90% of culture is outside our conscious awareness and seemingly invisible - the attitudes, values and assumptions, including things like concepts of beauty, modesty, principles of child-rearing, sin, and social mobility among other things. Just as an example, Americans believe it is important to get children to sleep on their own, in their own bed, right from the start. They don’t think twice about putting a child in the crib and shutting the door behind them, often leaving the baby to cry themselves to sleep. To most Indian parents this is inconceivable. There is nothing right or wrong about either paradigm. It is just different. I realized that the sooner I was able to see things as “different”, not “different and therefore bad”, not as “superior” or “inferior” the sooner I was able to integrate. The less judgmental I became the more I allowed myself to assimilate and benefit from my new environment.

Acceptance of the new culture and the creation of a new normal, allowedme to learn and grow, rather than feel threatened and shrink. It was only when I was able to do this, that I was able to settle in, feel comfortable, less insecure, less alone. It was only then that I was really able to exploit the great opportunities that had come my way.

And then, suddenly, before I knew it, it was time to move back and I was faced with anxiety about repatriation. It was time for the reverse culture shock – the unexpected confrontation with what used to be familiar. Suddenly the flaws of the home country one pines for and fantasizes about start to show up – they now seem more glaring because of the wider exposure to the world. Also reintegration back home, into old social networks becomes challenging because while you move away, people move on.

When I first learnt of this cycle of adaptation, it came as a shock to me that everything I had felt during my move to the US, my stay there, and then my subsequent return, was actually normal – it was something that everyone in a similar situation goes through. People just deal with it differently – some better than me and some worse.

A large part of making a success of the move depends on how one is able to develop a non-judgmental global mindset that is accepting of differences – be they those of language, food, clothes, and rituals, or the more significant ones of values, beliefs, and social norms. Organizations can truly benefit by helping employees navigate this emotional minefield – helping them to be able to see the glass as half-full, rather than half-empty; helping them to see differences as just that – not necessarily better or worse. And in doing so, also focusing on the spouses and families will reap huge returns.

For the move to be really successful, for the employee and the organization, it needs to be successful for every member of the family unit that is relocated, not just the employee. If the spouse is feeling lost and unanchored, or the child is unable to cope with the social challenges at school, a lot of the relocating employee’s energy will get sapped. They may end up either becoming indifferent to the family’s challenges or constantly distracted by them. Neither is helpful for the organizational objectives with which they were relocated.

It is unrealistic for organizations to expect employees to just uproot from one location and grow roots in another. When a plant is transplanted from one pot to another, it needs additional care in the initial phase before it starts growing and thriving in its new pot. The same with employees from our people garden!

What organizations must not ignore when an employee relocates:

  1. Give employees a cultural orientation session focusing on the culture of the new country or the new city, and the main differences one will experience as they start living in their new environment. This orientation must also be available for spouses and children (focusing on their needs).
  2. Help employees and their families see differences in culture, as merely differences – not necessarily negatives and positives.
  3. Give employees a handy list of resources that they will need as soon as they arrive in the new location. This should cover resources that will be helpful not only in settling down physically but also emotionally, socially and culturally.
  4. Try to ensure they have a mentor within the organization, in the new location, who helps them not only settle down at work, but who is also able to facilitate the family’s settling down in a non-judgmental, respectful and accepting way.
  5. Facilitate access to EAP counselling in the new country for themselves and the family members which gives them an opportunity to discuss concerns along the stages of the adaptation cycle, before they become a crisis. Also this will help normalize the cycle of adaptation as they experience it.
​Maullika Sharma is a Bangalore-based counselor who quit her corporate career to work in the mental health space. Maullika works with Workplace Options, a global employee wellbeing company, and practices at the Reach Clinic, Bangalore. 

This story is from Beyond Relocation, a series on migration and how it impacts our emotional and mental health. Read more here:
1. We need to acknowledge the emotional impact of migration: Dr Sabina Rao
2. Moving was all of these: a challenge, an adventure and an opportunity to learn about myself: Revathi Krishna