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Retaining globally mobile professionals after COVID-19

Opdateret: 13. maj 2020

Mental health concerns are front and centre for everyone right now. Anxiety, uncertainty, fears for the future, the loss of our usual busy routines, balancing work from home and home school – we’ve all struggled at times. There’s plenty of advice out there, fortunately. The Danish version of lockdown has been less draconian than elsewhere in Europe, and there now is a slow return to a semblance of normality. Plus, it’s been a warm and sunny few weeks – family walks in the spring sunshine have helped.

Uncertainty is part of expat life

It can be especially difficult for expat families. Of course, globally mobile individuals and their families are used to a degree of uncertainty – it comes with the territory. Contracts end, life changes rapidly, international moves are regular, and even a 10-year-old global nomad makes the most agile business manager look like an “adaptability-rookie”. But it’s a misconception to assume the (generally wealthy and well educated) globally mobile are impervious to anxiety, uncertainty and doubt. A large scale longitudinal study of 1.45 mio. Danes, over 30 years to the millennium, investigated the long-term impact of mobility. Results from this study, published by Webb & Pedersen in 2016, suggested this mobile cohort had a higher propensity to negative outcomes later in life across a range of psychological disorders. Flying in the face of research and common sense, the casual myth that globally mobile families are ‘super resilient’ still persists. One quote I read in an edited book on research into expat life (by Mila Lazarova and colleagues) encapsulate my view –

‘the challenges of international assignments are still generally underestimated, both by organizations and families’.

It’s concerning, therefore, that employers still focus largely on the logistics and practical aspects of relocation, and end up paying little or no attention to the psychological wellbeing of the new employee and their accompanying family. The best most can hope for? Some perfunctory ‘cultural training’ as a sweetener in the relocation package. This needs to change!

COVID-19: its impact on global mobility

Global mobility has increased hugely during the 21st century, and in Denmark it’s been a broadly supported political objective to attract international talent since 2001. This strategy has gained real momentum since 2008, and there are now over 100,000 ‘highly skilled international professionals’ resident in Denmark, according to a 2019 report from Akademiet for de Tekniske Videnskaber (ATV). This is great for Denmark – with one huge caveat: long-term retention and integration of this cohort is a persistent problem. Our international image - cycling, hygge, cinnamon buns - is working well to attract talent, but what comes after that clearly isn’t. COVID-19 is already having huge impacts on expats. Projects are mothballed. Teams are furloughed. Revenues have disappeared. Recruitment plans are on hold. Global companies have pulled expats from assignments – especially from third world countries, those with weaker healthcare systems, or severe COVID-19 outbreaks. Families are being separated, as children and spouses are repatriated preferentially - this is a reality among the clients we work with, and is happening globally amongst international expat communities. There is little extant academic research to fall back on regarding expat family adjustment and even less (or none) on resilience in times of a global crisis. Like everything else right now – it’s far from clear what effect the current crisis will have on international talent working in Denmark. Will they stay…or will they go? This ‘corona interregnum’ is a unique opportunity for Danish companies to reflect, think strategically, and develop a plan: how can we solve this problem, that more internationals might say ‘nej, tak’ to settling and making long term contributions to the Danish economy and society?

Should I stay or should I go?

When the world feels insecure, it’s a normal human reaction to yearn for the certainties of home. COVID-19 has already caused a global economic earthquake – there is a risk of premature termination of many expat contracts as businesses across all sectors battle to survive. In normal times, academic studies have consistently shown that up to 70% of terminations are caused by the lack of family wellbeing (McNulty, 2014; Lazarova et al, 2015). Even if international talent remains in Denmark, family happiness affect their professional productivity. One study argues, not surprisingly, that there is a direct correlation between the productivity of the international assignee and the overall mental wellbeing of their accompanying family (Ones et al., 2018).

Our manifesto: the measures Danish companies should take to bolster expat well-being

We want our companies to show the courage and foresight to extend their duty of care to encompass the wellbeing and mental health of accompanying families. “This too shall pass” - when the corona crisis is over, we need Denmark to be ready, competitive and global like never before.

#1 Make “making friends” easier

It’s not easy to make friends with the Danes. It’s a fact that expats and international global talent find it easier to establish networks among other internationals. Make it a strategic objective to support cross-cultural integration. It takes effort to support the process of dual adaptation. Expand socials to include international employees’ families. Create “cross-cultural” gatherings where the focus is on expanding horizons – not just drinking and dancing.

#2 Extend the “duty of care”

Providing ongoing mental health support for both the international employee and their accompanying family is a must. The widespread reluctance to provide “special programs” for the company’s globally mobile employees (that is, both international employees working in Denmark AND Danish employees working abroad) might partly be a cultural reluctance – but it’s a black mark for attracted talent. An ‘on the ground’ lack of concern for overall mental wellbeing hardly meshes well with the lure of hygge, happiness indices, winter bathing and cycling to fetch pastries.

#3 Provide “landing support”

The challenges of coming home – planned, or not – are always underestimated. As an organisation it’s easy to overlook this. In order to re-onboard returning international employees successfully, it’s important to address expectations. Some companies report a 50% churn in returning employees within the first year back at DK HQ. Providing support upon return is vital!

We’re here to help

The Danish Department of Health encourages people to seek help if they’re feeling anxious or overwhelmed. For high performing executives, showing mental vulnerability is often a taboo. This group needs specialized support from professionals conversant with mobile lifestyle, cultural differences and unique third culture challenges not experienced by the masses (Bushong, 2013).

Our mission is to support companies, families and individuals in achieving 360° expatriate success. We are expat specialists - specialized in intercultural management, psychology, psychotherapy and coaching.

We all have personal lived experience with globally mobile lifestyles. If you’re an expat or globally mobile individual (with or without a family), please share this blog with your global HR partner.

You can also reach out to us directly. If you work with internationals or in HR, please continue reading here or call +45 4011 0459 to learn how we can assist you to improve the wellbeing of your international employees and their families – both during the corona crisis, and after.

KaffesnakNanna Hauch
00:00 / 27:38
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