I came across an article at www.thefreelibrary.com entitled, “Managing stress in the expatriate family: a case study of The State department of the United States of America,” and would like to share a few excerpts that I find pertinent to the relocating expatriate. Though the article specifically refers to civil servants who are required to relocate continuously, it nonetheless foresees and validates issues applicable to any of our clientele who are moving to London from the U.S. or elsewhere in the world.
Not surprisingly, the study addresses the high level of stress associated with an international move:
“Stress is defined as a psychological state that develops when an individual faces a situation that taxes or exceeds internal or external resources available to deal with that situation. There are three major components of stress: uncertainty concerning outcomes; lack of control over situations; and ambiguity concerning expectations. By their very nature, overseas assignments are characterized by uncertainty, lack of control, and ambiguity.”
Indeed, of the 40 stressful life events listed in this study, international relocations are the source of at least 12 of them.
In addition to the added challenge of not only relocating, but leaving behind one’s familiar social support system as well, the article addresses the implications for children and spouses:
“Parents must decide whether to send children to State Department schools abroad, where quality of education can be more standardized, versus a non-American school, where foreign language is emphasized and a more complete cross-cultural experience is the focus. The children themselves also have varied needs and requirements that must be considered, whether it’s identifying talented and gifted programs, or classes for students with learning disabilities or who are physically challenged. […] Although frequent transitions can be stressful on children, the opportunity to fully experience life in foreign countries is one of its greatest advantages. […] [P]arents can learn how to teach their children to appreciate and take advantage of those experiences.”
“It is difficult to nurture or maintain a career while being required to relocate often. [Spouses] cannot gain tenure at any one company or move up the corporate ladder. In addition to job hopping, there may be no opportunities available at all in the spouse’s chosen career field depending on the host country.”
There is also the matter of adjusting to the new culture overall—for this and all stressful factors involved, an important means of coping is for the family to work together through the changes as a team.
“Adjustment to foreign cultures as a family is important. When families are mobile, they tend to turn to each other for support. So it is important for families as a whole to be well adjusted and adapted to life abroad.”
Now, as I said, this study is geared toward civil servants moving on behalf of the United States government; these particular employees, therefore, receive transitional support from various government agencies, including the Family Liason Office (FLO). If you or your spouse is transferring to the UK or starting a new job here outright, you must be prepared for the fact that the employer may not have such support services in place for you. This is an unfortunate reality that I keep hearing about through other expats’ experiences and the global human resource community.
The responsibility will fall on you, then, to proactively seek help from that employer or third party services. Relocation agencies such as London Relocation Ltd. will certainly minimize the stress of finding a flat to rent in London, setting up a UK bank account, as well as fielding other questions related to logistics like setting up utilities or otherwise getting acclimated (remember, we also have our social forum for such questions and meeting other expats for support!). Empowerment coaches are another resource for setting new goals in a new environment, offering emotional support along with practical advice.
In any case, much literature exists to offer additional guidance, including that of the FLO, which suggests:
“getting totally immersed in the community, getting acquainted with the new neighborhood, attending local theater performances, and participating in local entertainment and festivals. However, it also stresses maintaining family traditions, so that no matter where the family is located, some familiarity still exists. Examples of participating in family traditions include patterns around holidays, weekly get-togethers, family vacations and family recreation.”
As someone who has gone through the difficult transition that is an international relocation to London, trust me that your focus needs to stay on who you are as a person no matter where you may be located geographically, and, if you’re moving with a spouse and/or children, stick together as a unified front against those threatening stressors. If you succeed in this, you’ll succeed in anything you set out for, wherever you may find yourself.