By: Manu Barba, posted abroad three times with his family as a diplomat in the Danish Foreign Service
Ever made a four-page shopping list?
I have a couple of times. Not the usual one to go to the local grocery store. But a detailed to-do list in connection with a posting abroad. In my case before and after moving from Denmark with my family to live in South Africa, Austria and Portugal.
My lists were lengthy planning tools, written by myself or provided by the HR department of my employer. “Long as an evil year” a Danish saying goes. And one year was what it took, before I had ticked off everything on my lists. One year of hard work from starting our preparations in Denmark, until we were more or less settled in six months after arrival in our new home country.
Our experience is that moving abroad for a posting or international assignment is a huge transition for a family. A daunting task at a practical and at a mental level. We were faced with a lot of choices and most of them had a bearing on the wellbeing of all family members, not least my spouse and children. Making it more complicated, we were in an information deficit. We often lacked the necessary information and certainty that made us able to answer the many questions waiting in line.
It starts before you even have a new job abroad. Before applying for a position, we tried to identify the places where a good job seemed to combine with good living conditions for our family. In reality, the decision was often based on fragments of hastily gathered information, personal advice from colleagues, and our own perceptions of the countries in question. Sometimes we ended up with a few determining questions. For example, is the air pollution a problem for our son’s asthma?
Once I got the job, the real marathon began. What school and kindergarten should we choose, is often the first question when you have children, as it also defines where to look for housing. Are there any employment or education possibilities for my spouse? How about a social network? Friends for the kids? Leisure activities? Health conditions? Language issues? On top of that, there is a pile of practical stuff: paperwork of every kind, selling and buying of cars, insurance, and of course organising the actual moving.
When you arrive in your new home country, you are halfway at best. There were a lot of practicalities that put pressure on me and my spouse for many months to come. However, finding a new network, understanding a different culture and dealing with unfamiliar systems was often the real challenge of moving abroad, especially if you have children. Everything is new and exciting, but also new and difficult.
While the adults were trying to cope with a challenging new job or defining a new role for themselves as an accompanying spouse, we – and not least my spouse – had to spend a lot of time helping the children adapt to new surroundings in a new kindergarten or a different school system, finding new friends, and learning a new language as a non-English natives. There is nothing more emotional and disheartening than seeing one of your children struggling with this change and not thriving.
Family issues can change your entire perspective on a posting. No matter how much you were looking forward to it beforehand and no matter how interesting the job or how wonderful a country, they are a defining factor. If the family doesn’t settle in the new place, it can be a showstopper. Ending a posting or an assignment early can be the direct consequence of a family not thriving. We never made that ultimate decision (even though we sometimes contemplated it). But we know people who did.
Our experience is that the employer has an important role to play. Good companies and organisations proactively help their employees’ families to establish a good life abroad. Apart from being good employee policy, it is simply good business. In fact, if an organization relies on assignments and international mobility as an integral part of its operations, there is no way around supporting families as part of the package. Satisfied families make satisfied – and productive – employees. Such support can take many shapes. But the important thing is to focus on the wellbeing of the entire family, not just the employee who is sent abroad to do a job.
We had mixed experiences with family support during our three postings. Better support and more information would not have eliminated my need for a four-page “shopping list”. But narrowing the information gap would have made it easier to tick off the items.