Repatriation: The rocky road home

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SPECIAL FEATURE: Tougher economic times in Norway, brought on by the fall in oil prices, mean many expatriates in the country are now dealing with job losses or reassignments that can involve moving back to their home countries. Repatriation can be just as challenging as moving abroad was, notes clinical psychologist Nicola McCaffrey, who offers the following professional advice for coping with the issues at hand.

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Dr Nicola McCaffrey, a clinical psychologist in Stavanger, can help put a smile back on the faces of employees who are losing their jobs in the oil and other industries. PHOTO: Special to newsinenglish.no

Dr Nicola McCaffrey, a clinical psychologist in Norway’s currently hard-hit oil capital of Stavanger, continues to offer advice to people facing unexpected trauma in the job market. PHOTO: Special to newsinenglish.no

Expats are experts at preparing for their next posting, whether it’s in Aberdeen or Abu Dhabi. As soon as they hear about the impending move they start to learn the basics of the language, read books on their destination country and join online social groups to connect with people going through a similar experience.

While companies spend sizable sums preparing their employees for expatriation, returning employees are typically left unsupported as they make the tricky transition back to their passport country. Just like expatriation, repatriation has numerous psychological phases, many of which are unexpected and unanticipated. Most notably, encountering reverse culture shock when returning home is a surprising situation often overlooked by both expats returning and the companies that are calling them to come home.

Around three-quarters of expats returning home are likely to experience psychological discomfort upon re-entry, according to research on the issue. For many, unexpected challenges can take them by surprise, leaving them vulnerable and defenseless.

Stranger in your own land
When you become an expat you leave your home expecting everything to be new and different and when you return you expect things to be basically the same as when you left. People often struggle when they realize that not only have they changed, but so too have their once familiar city, their family and their friends. Feeling like a foreigner in a foreign land is expected; feeling like a stranger in your own country is not.

It is common knowledge among expats that the process of adjusting to life overseas is often frustrating, disconcerting and stressful. Repatriates, however, seem to be largely unprepared for the psychological distress and discomfort that commonly accompanies a return home. The less prepared you are for this and the more it takes you by surprise, the higher the levels of distress the return journey is likely to cause you. Moreover, often our family and friends at home are just as unprepared as we are for the shock of repatriation and this can often exacerbate any difficulties.

Much like culture shock, reverse culture shock has a number of different phases. Imagine your repatriation journey to be U-shaped. You have the initial euphoria of returning home to all of those things you have missed, from old friends to familiar foods and even the comfort of a common language. This initial spike of joy wears off as you find yourself feeling out of place in your own culture. The novelty of being at home dissolves as you begin to settle into your new routines and life. You have to face the reality of how substantially not only you have changed but also how your home, the culture and the landscape have changed.

This is reverse culture shock, the bottom of the U shaped curve, and often the roughest and most difficult part of the return journey. The good news is, of course, that the curve swings up again and although it may take some time, you will begin to make the gradual adjustment back towards feeling familiar, accepted and having a sense of belonging again.

Some of the top frustrations and difficulties that expats returning home experience include:

  • Boredom
  • No one is very curious or wants to listen to you tell them about your experiences
  • Inability to explain your experience or emotions to others
  • Relationships have changed
  • Feeling misunderstood
  • Feelings of alienation
  • Inability to apply your new knowledge and skills

In 2013 Naomi Hattaway, an American who moved first to India and then to Singapore, wrote a blog entitled “I am a triangle” on the difficulties she experiences when repatriating. In her blog she asked her readers to imagine that they were from a place called Circle Country and were a Circle Citizen. They then moved to Square Society and lived in the midst of Square Settlers. Over time the circle citizen slowly evolves into something different, transforming into a triangle. Being a triangle means having some of your original circle culture mixed together with your newly adopted square culture. When the triangle gets repatriated to circle country, they don’t become a circle again just because you have landed back home. You remain a triangle. You have forever been changed in some fundamental way by your experience she notes.

Hattaway’s popular metaphor hit on a very simple but important concept. Simply put, being an expat is such an intense experience that it can bring about significant changes in terms of professional and personal roles and values. Changes that we are not even consciously aware of. Our old value and beliefs systems are challenged and reevaluated, and we begin to view our lives with a fresh perspective.

Lots of expatriate oil industry workers in Norway now face the tough and lonely job of finding new work, or having to move back home. PHOTO: Statoil/Øyvind Hagen

Lots of expatriate oil industry workers in Norway now face the tough and lonely job of finding new work or needing to move back home. Dr Nicola McCraffey suggests that many also need to realize they’re moving backwards and forwards at the same time. PHOTO: Statoil/Øyvind Hagen

When it comes to repatriation, how we think about it can be crucial to how we experience it. The assumptions that are involved with the idea of “going home” and “being back” can fuel much of the discomfort of the reentry experience. The truth is that even though we may be moving “back” to our passport country, we are actually continuing to move forward in our lives. It is important to reframe the experience of reentry as a continuous, ongoing process; continuation of your story rather than the end of it.

Repatriates also need to shed the notion that their great adventure has come to an end. They should be encouraged to recognize that they are, once again, entering a new and ever-changing cultural and physical environment, no matter how familiar it may feel. As the process of repatriation begins, a new opportunity lies ahead.

Try to think of repatriation in the same way you came to think of expatriation, and experience your “home” environment as you have done the foreign places you have previously made your home. Over the course of living in a different country, you have come to develop a great many skills including dealing with unfamiliar cultures, familiarizing yourself with different neighborhoods and making new friends. Use these skills and rely on the abilities and approaches that you honed while living internationally.

The professional challenges
Multinational companies are finding that while they are using plenty of resources to prepare employees for an international transfer, they are less attentive to the other end of the move. Research indicates that although companies are experts in meeting needs associated with the details of moving household goods, cost-of-living adjustments and so forth, they are much less accomplished in helping employees and their families meet the psychological needs arising from the stress of transition.

The reality is that the impact of repatriation for the employee is often far greater than that of the original move. Moving abroad is perceived as exciting, usually involving a promotion or at the very least, an increase in peer status and often the new post plays to the transferees’ strengths. The immediate impact of life abroad is more keenly felt by the family who are interacting with it on a far more intimate basis. The employee, on the other hand, has likely been chosen for a particular skill set that is, by and large, appreciated by the new team as an asset.

As the ex-pat journey comes to an end, and discussions turn to the move back home, insecurities and fears typically surface. Research suggests that less than 35 percent of companies make any post-assignment guarantees with regards to the role that awaits the employee in the office of their home country. Many employees complain that on their return, the new skills and knowledge they have acquired over their posting are not put to any discernable use. Furthermore, employees also often experience returning to a role that no longer fits their knowledge and capabilities very well, and that can increase anxieties about their overall career path and their future within the company. It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, to read that around 20 percent of expats leave the company within the first nine months of their return.

If the repatriation and expatriation were treated with the same significance, and companies stand to retain the employees that they have spent so many resources training and skilling up, then this begs the question why not do it? Surely the loss of a valued employee to a competitor makes for a compelling reason to fund extra support. Is the bottom line in the repatriation process really the bottom line?

Conclusion
In the end, the transition back “home” requires patience and even more of an open mind than the one you left with. Successful repatriation comes by acknowledging that you are not returning to the same circumstances that existed when you left. The truth is that in the time you have been away, you have changed. We have all changed. Expats, however, tend to change more dramatically than the people who have remained back home. Brace yourself for the shock and enjoy the unique thrills of seeing your home from this different and rather unique perspective.

Dr Nicola McCaffrey, who has written earlier for newsinenglish.no, is a clinical psychologist who’s been working in private practice in Stavanger since 2012. An expat herself, she has special insight into the challenges faced by those who’ve moved to Norway for professional or personal reasons, and she caters to the English-speaking international community in Norway. McCaffrey has a doctorate in clinical psychology from The University of Glasgow, has been qualified to work in the UK since 2008 and is authorized to practice in Norway through Statens Autorisasjons Kontor (SAK). McCaffrey is also a member of the professional association, Norsk Psykolog Foreningen. Visit her website at www.nicolamccaffrey.com.