In the not-so-distant past, a “trailing spouse” was typically the female partner of an expatriate male who ran the household and took care of the children’s needs while the family was on assignment. Today, the term “trailing spouse” is rarely used at all. As in non-expatriate society, family relationships are far more fluid and individual today. The accompanying partner or spouse might be responsible for the household and the children, might have a career or might have some combination of work and family responsibilities.
Studies have repeatedly shown that the leading cause of failed assignments is the inability of the spouse/partner and other family members to acclimate to their new environment. While the expatriate has an exciting, new professional challenge and somewhere to go every day, the spouse/partner is often giving up or deferring his or her personal, social and professional lives to support the spouse. This can be a bitter pill to swallow for many dual-career couples, and unless the employer is prepared to assist the spouse/partner in creating a meaningful, rewarding life in the host country, the candidate might turn down the assignment, or worse, it might fail mid-stream.
With most households today being dual career, spouse/partner support has become an essential part of an expatriate package. This includes pre-departure assistance as well as ongoing support throughout the assignment and upon repatriation. Training prior to departure should include cross-cultural assistance, which will help the family to adapt quickly by immersing themselves in the day-to-day life of the host country. Language training beginning prior to departure and continuing after arrival in the host country also allows one to feel more comfortable and relaxed in day-to-day life.
Unfortunately, in many cases, after the cross cultural and language training are completed the company’s support for the spouse / partner ends. Given the substantial cost of an international assignment, not to mention the ancillary costs of a failed assignment, it makes sense to invest in other relatively inexpensive support services that help the spouse or partner to acclimate smoothly.
According to Dr. Anne Copeland of the Interchange Institute, there are three ways for companies to minimize the spouse / partner’s assignment stress. The first is to help the expatriate family to connect with other families who are already living or have lived in the same host city. These new connections can offer practical advice about life in the host location and even more importantly, they can provide emotional support, having gone through the process themselves.
Next, companies can establish Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) in their most popular expatriate host countries. Many companies have EAP programs in the United States, but do not always have the same support available globally. An EAP counselor can listen to the spouse/partner’s anxieties and concerns objectively and provide calm reassurance. This type of assistance can be invaluable in smoothing the spouse/partner’s adjustment.
Finally, companies can offer educational, vocational and career services to spouses / partners. This includes assistance in identifying university or continuing education classes, helping to locate appropriate volunteer activities, and perhaps even helping to find employment opportunities whenever this is possible.
By implementing these initiatives, the company demonstrates that it cares about the employee’s holistic family needs. When combined with the home office location or home Human Resources maintaining contact with the employee throughout the course of the assignment, the company greatly increases the chance of a successful, completed assignment.
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