March 11, 2020 is a date we all remember too well: it’s the day when the World Health Organisation declared the COVID-19 outbreak as a pandemic. Since then, it has affected all of us and changed our lives permanently, especially regarding work, social interactions and mental health. Two years have now passed and, even if a lot of countries have come back to normal – or a “new normal” -– we can’t deny the changes that took place.
Many countries adopted home confinement policies such as lockdown and curfew to avoid the virus spreading uncontrollably. So, most companies had to face a problem: how can we keep working if employees cannot leave the house? From this point of view, the pandemic has shown that many jobs can actually be done remotely, and according to a Deloitte recent study “where the job is done is less important than how it is done”.
According to Baudot and Kelly, in their survey about perceptions of remote work and work productivity, however, in designing remote work arrangements, there are many factors that need to be acknowledged: organistions need to consider demographic variables (e.g. childcare access during remote work), job-related variables (e.g., jobs of a professional nature, position level, job tenure), and supervisory control variables (e.g., tight supervisory controls) that may affect the degree to which remote work impacts work productivity.
While working from home may have represented a valid arrangement for companies which needed to continue with their business, it has been a source of stress and burnout for many employees. Every situation is different, and COVID and remote working made it evident that not everybody had a home suitable for working remotely.
For some people, it was very difficult to separate the working area from the resting area, for example; or for many parents with children, it was challenging to have a quiet environment to stay focused, and the same was for the children attending online lessons. There were also situations where the technologies available were limited, like no more than one laptop per family being available, or an intermittent wi-fi network. Moreover, working from home also exacerbated complicated and toxic relationships leading to dangerous situations and an increase in domestic violence.
This has been the situation for many employees who were forced to change their lives overnight, because the fast-spreading virus required immediate action, leaving no time to organise proper training on how to safely work from home.
A good CEO should know the importance of work-life balance and should care about the wellbeing of the members of their team. But what happens when these employees live abroad? When the team is spread across countries and time zones?
In 2017, Finaccord counted roughly 50.5 million expatriates worldwide. The reasons behind people’s decision to move abroad are various, but we must agree that relocating and working in a foreign country is a challenge on many levels – in fact, it is important to consider that expats usually don’t have a solid social support system (generally represented in the country of origin by family and friends) in the new country. Moreover, they can suffer from homesickness and cultural shock and can isolate themselves, with the result of having a hard time adapting to the new culture, work and lifestyle.
In addition to these typical problems, we have to consider the abnormal situation of the world pandemic, which brought a whole new set of issues to be considered. Travel restrictions and limited international mobility led to millions of people being ‘stuck’ in foreign countries and, if for people on holiday the choice of coming back home may have been easier, for expats it was a more difficult one.
Considering the little information available about the virus at the beginning of the pandemic, deciding whether to stay abroad or not was a terribly hard decision they were forced to take. Even more so as it came unexpectedly, and especially if we consider the uncertainty around it. They were torn – facing a dilemma between leaving and losing their job (and therefore possibly not being able to contribute anymore to their family support) or staying and not being able to visit relatives and friends for an unknown period of time.
On one side, the expat grief was unbearable. Accepting the situation and finding a meaning was even more complicated. Feelings of discomfort, loneliness, helplessness and fear were what expats had to face daily. On the other side, the pandemic was also a time for expats to realise the skills and resources they had been developing in their time abroad and how technologies could have been used to feel closer, and they started developing new, innovative and creative ways to cope with the pandemic and to do their part for their country of origin or their new country.
As highlighted by Végh, Jenkins and Claes in their article ‘Should I stay or should I go?—Why the future of global work may be less binary: Lessons on approaches to global crises from the experiences of expatriates during the COVID-19 pandemic’ after the borders started to close and flights were grounded in response to the pandemic, the majority (over 75 per cent) of the participants in their study* stayed in the country they were living and working in. Most of them shared new perspectives and concerns about staying overseas or accepting a new job abroad, as well as about the need to travel for business meetings, which could just as easily be conducted over Zoom.
When asked, “what personal skills, traits, previous experience or expertise have you found most helpful” during the COVID-19 situation, many cited skills and experience gained from living and working abroad, as in this example suggests: “flexibility, resilience. I am used to uncertainty due to my kind of expat life; independence, self-sufficiency”.
Even if expats show remarkable adaptation skills, they also have peculiar needs that have to be taken into consideration. The pandemic has taught every one of us the importance of work-life balance, as well as wellbeing and especially mental health, which is an indirect victim of the COVID-19 pandemic. If working from home resulted in more time spent with the family and uncertainty of the future was a chance to live in the moment and a relief for some, for others these arrangements meant fewer social interactions and being forced to stay for long periods of time in small apartments, resulting in aggravation of, potentially, an already present mental disorder.
That’s why it has to be a priority for companies and CEOs to actively check on their employee’s wellbeing, providing training and tools for mental health awareness inside companies, psychological consultation, support groups and a safe space.
But for foreign employees, something more has to be done. For them, in fact, it doubles the risk of mental health conditions compared to people who never moved abroad. Even more so for their accompanying partner, because moving abroad also means being alone, and feeling lonely. For most expats it means speaking in another language all the time, not their mother tongue and for this reason possibly being unable to use the right words, especially to communicate their emotions.
Isolation can lead to depression, and family economic and social needs can increase the pressure on expats and their conditions. Studies have shown that almost half of all international assignments fail. Most of these failures can be traced back to a lack of realistic preparation and support. A well-structured Cultural Relocation Support programme is fundamental to support foreign employees and their families in their new life abroad.
* The study group included 589 participants, from 55 countries with 48 nationalities. It included self-initiated expatriates (those who chose to live and work abroad), as well as those who had been expatriated by their employers.
The author would like to thank Laura Gonella, GMD intern, for her support in the research and writing of this article.
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