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Expat Guilt: The Ticking Time Bomb of International Assignees

Matthew MacLachlan

5 Apr 2017

Expat guilt is the ticking time bomb faced by many international assignees and their families. The list of ‘what ifs?’ is endless both prior to and when finally at your destination. But how do you dispel the inevitable expat guilt and make a success of your assignment – both on a personal and professional level? 

Expat Guilt When Settling in

After an initial period of adaptation to the new country, the expat family begins to establish a routine. This routine may be different to the routine they have been used to back home, but it works for them in their new environment. For many international assignees, this is when they can really relax and enjoy their experience in a new culture. And, if they are fortunate, this is their life until they move on to a new expatriate assignment, return home, or retire.

A bump in the road

Unfortunately, many expats will encounter additional challenges, even if they have settled well and adopted more intercultural practices. These less fortunate assignees may be faced with making a choice, often out of their control, that puts pressure on them to return home in the midst of their assignment. A ‘What if?’ has arisen.

The pull back home is often due to family matters. Life milestones, emergencies or illness present a situation that is much more difficult to manage remotely.

Living a long distance from other family members presents logistical challenges:

  • expense
  • time
  • often a sense of marginalisation or disengagement

The assignee’s responsibilities to manage their life abroad must be balanced with their expectations of meeting family obligations or other events back home.

The pull back home is often due to family matters

Managing ‘What ifs?’

Some ‘What ifs?’ can be planned and managed in advance. These can include big life milestones such as weddings, births and other organised rights of passage. Others are unexpected emergencies, such as a sudden illness or accident. A difficult decision about whether to return home is looming.

The situation is often compounded by guilt. And, as an article in the Wall Street Journal illustrates, guilt can be felt by the reactions of other assignees as well as the expat’s family.

Some ‘What ifs?’ can be planned and managed in advance…Others are unexpected emergencies, such as a sudden illness or accident.

Managing guilt

To make matters even more difficult, the assignee may feel torn about the decision they are facing. For example, is it worth travelling back home to give emotional support to a family member who has received bad news about their health, especially when the assignee is unable to do anything practical to alleviate the situation?

A difficult decision about whether to return home is looming

Their decision whether or not to travel may be influenced more by family expectations, reputation issues or other intangibles than by the physical act of boarding a flight back home.

Consider all options

Try to seek help from other expats – non-expats will find your experiences and feelings difficult to understand

Some assignees may choose to utilise technology such as Skype to create a virtual presence. In some families, this may not only be enough but may be considered a practical decision. For other families, the same decision may come across as cold-hearted or selfish.

It may also be complicated further if the assignee’s decision is not the same one they would have made if they were still back home.

Some assignees may choose to utilise technology such as Skype to create a virtual presence

For example, choosing to stay abroad and offer support via Skype may not be understood by family members who have little experience of travel and don’t (or choose not to) understand the difficulties of an unplanned trip back home.

No choice

Assignees may also experience expat guilt if, although they would travel back home, they simply cannot do so. They may have family obligations in their own home. They may not be able to travel due to reasons such as inflexible work obligations that, if broken, could jeopardise their assignment.

They [Assignees] may not be able to travel due to reasons such as inflexible work obligations that, if broken, could jeopardise their assignment

These could range from visa and residency obligations to the future of their continued employment. Others may be heavily pregnant or have other physical restrictions currently preventing their own ability to travel.

Putting guilt in its place

Feeling guilty is a normal human condition. Managing it effectively involves setting expectations, communicating, and, if expectations cannot be met, then finding the next best options. Most people who have your genuine interests at heart will try to understand.