Founder of www.theexpater.com Nina Hobson considers how organisations, expatriates, and spouses themselves can support an accompanying spouse’s life abroad
SPOUSES ARE ‘IMPEDIMENTS TO GREAT ENTERPRISES,’ WROTE PHILOSOPHER FRANCIS BACON. WHILE PENNED IN THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY, THIS PERCEPTION PREVAILS IN MANY OFFICES WORLDWIDE. FOR TOO MANY ORGANISATIONS, ACCOMPANYING SPOUSES ARE AT BEST A NUISANCE, AT WORST A THREAT.
Family and spouse-related issues remain a top concern for global mobility managers – and assignees themselves. Too often, when the going gets tough, expats go home early, or to another organisation. With total costs running up to hundreds of thousands of dollars per expat, it is a heavy burden for recruiters to bear.
I am an accompanying spouse and I feel the burden acutely. I am the reason why my husband left his job in Nigeria, and the reason he will be leaving Ecuador soon, too. Throughout his career abroad, desperate executives have tried to woo me with lavish parties, false promises and token job offers, but they were missing the mark. The way to keep me quiet is to give me a voice.
My biggest challenge as a spouse abroad has been self-purpose. Like any human, I need to feel needed. And it is impossible to manufacture an authentic sense of need from thin air. Self-fulfilment is just that – feeling fulfilled in oneself. It cannot be imposed from upon high.
Author of Just a Diplomatic Spouse Alexandra Paucescu agrees. There is no solution to the problems that accompanying partners face, only ways to mitigate them, she explains. The harsh truth is that spouses need to take charge themselves. However, the assignee and institution share equal responsibility, she underlines.
Diplomatic life is not all Hollywood glamour. My first job took me to the EU institutions in Brussels where I spent more time dodging dull conferences than foreign spies. Life abroad has its excitement, but life is still life. Relationship issues, personal worries and routine hassles do not stop at the boarding gate. The first thing we can do to help anyone considering a relocation is to manage false expectations.
Expat life can be lonely, stressful, and boring. The immense privilege of diplomatic life is not a cure-all. I am privileged, but I am also human. We need to stop camouflaging spouses’ concerns with irrelevant luxuries. A live-in maid does not replace a fulfilling career, a cocktail event does not compensate for a pay cheque with your name on it.
This reality can be overlooked, especially in the context of life in a developing country. As a spouse based in Angola, a country in which four in 10 people survive on around 21 dollars per month, I felt ashamed to admit to anything other than gratitude. Yet, if spouses want real support, they need to be honest to themselves. And if organisations want to tackle the root causes of spousal discontent, they need to remove the blinkers, too.
But do they even want to help? I put this to Professor Sebastian Reiche, Professor of Managing People in Organisations at IESE Business School. He points out that current research continues to be largely based on anecdotes; there is little proof that improving an assignment’s personal life has a positive impact on work performance. Organisations cannot be expected to fork out for spousal support when there is no concrete data to prove it is in the organisation’s best interest. Perhaps the first step is for institutions to invest in evidence-based research.
Whose job it is to take care of the spouse? Well intentioned staff have helped me out in a pickle, but this assistance stemmed from their heart, not their job description. While the US Embassy employs Community Liaison Officers to help spouses adjust before, during and after the assignment (and prioritises spouses for this role), relocation staff are generally paid to focus on the hardware of flight tickets and shipping containers, not the softer side of spousal self-fulfilment. With the strain of the economic fallout from the pandemic, and without data to support a relaxing of purse strings, is it any wonder that institutions eschew this responsibility?
Some organisations do offer financial compensation for the spouse’s loss of earnings, and others plough resources into helping them find work. However, there are other more cost-effective solutions, too.
Social networks have a huge impact on wellbeing. ‘It’s important to know that you’re not alone,’ Paucescu smiles. ‘Connecting with others helps you to validate your feelings, to know that you’re not crazy.’ And these connections do not need to be prohibitively expensive. Organisations should leverage their resources, technology, and the support of spouses themselves to help them connect with like-minded people on a more sustainable basis, Professor Reiche explains. For example, an informal coffee morning could be transformed into an official club which would not close its doors when the lead organiser leaves the country.
Furthermore, support should be personalised. As a self-employed serial expat mum my needs differ to those of my other accompanying spouse friends. Yet we could all benefit from the option of personalised coaching, community liaison programmes or self-development courses. As a fluent speaker of French, I did not need expensive language tuition courses while based in Switzerland, but I would have benefited from professional mentoring.
This type of support is important throughout the expatriate journey. From personal experience, organisations put a great emphasis on the initial relocation stage, but generally neglect the equally challenging repatriation phase. Lynn Greenberg is founder and CEO of Pivt, a mobile app connecting relocating professionals and their families. A spouse should not have to seek out support through their partner, but be connected with the resources they need before, during and after the assignment, she beams.
Spouses need to be integrated within the expat package, not bolted on as an afterthought, Greenberg continues. An assignment abroad is a complex machine, and each cog needs to turn at the right speed for it to work. Sadly, spouses tend to be shoved in after the machine has already been designed, into roles that do not fit, without the comfort of an instruction manual.
My first experience as an accompanying spouse launched me back to the dark ages. I had to go through my husband for everything from booking a doctor’s appointment, to signing the lease on a house. The fact that I was the only one who spoke French and German, and who was making the decisions, was irrelevant. There was one better half, and his signature was required throughout our journey abroad.
Society reflects this attitude. At an event Paucescu was greeted as ‘just a diplomatic spouse’ and in a newspaper article my profile read: ‘whose husband works in finance.’ While the pandemic is reshaping how we look at household maintenance and childcare, organisations and expats need to walk the talk by giving spouses the credit they deserve.
Greenberg is working with a social network scientist to devise the first formula for what makes an international move a success. Today, as my husband works in Uruguay and I tend to our three children while researching our move there, I would like to think that accompanying spouses are part of that formula.