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Employees working overseas can have a lonely Christmas, so here are some ways to help them

Christmas is coming – people are putting up advent calendars, compiling present lists and planning their office party outfits. Unless you’re in the Netherlands, where Sinterklaas arrived on November 11 and will hand out presents on December 5. Or Russia, where Christmas comes after New Year, on January 7. Or Japan, where Christmas Eve is celebrated more like Valentine’s Day.

The challenge of Christmas festivities for global mobility

For companies with a global footprint, the different ways that Christmas presents itself in different parts of the world can be a challenge as well as a point of curiosity. Employees often focus on the many upsides to taking on an international assignment – discovering a different culture, meeting new people, expanding their horizons.

But being away from home also brings with it the fear of missing out, and the biggest pinch point of all for Western employees is Christmas, just as celebrating Eid, Diwali and Hannukah are never the same for employees arriving in countries like the UK or USA.

What can go wrong for international assignees?

There is nothing quite like a major festival or event to remind people that they are a long way from home, which creates a risk of being overwhelmed by loneliness or isolation. The psychological impact of changing cultures is well-known: an influential study by psychiatrists in Colorado revealed that teenagers who lived overseas tended to feel less positive about themselves, feel more insecure about the future and feel less able to rely on friendships.

Global mobility professionals will be familiar with the ways that international assignments affect people differently. A family with children will react to Christmas away from relatives like grandparents in a different way to a younger couple, and an individual on assignment will face other challenges still. Dealing with these issues is part and parcel of the job of any HR department, which will recognise the duty of care they owe to employees. And there is a selfish reason for companies to want to look after their employees overseas as well – the potential impact of unhappy staff on an organisation’s well-being can be acute, in terms of decreased productivity or erratic behaviour.

What can employers do

The main thing that employers need to consider is that they should conduct an assessment of the potential vulnerabilities of assignees and their families.

Barbara Zesik, Chief People Officer at Santa Fe Relocation:

“It’s really important to understand the stresses that come with global mobility. Living in a place where you might not speak the local language and where doing normal things like getting a haircut or shopping for food become big challenges takes a lot of mental energy. The best way to help is to keep talking to people about what they are finding difficult. That’s even more important during the festive season.”

Apart from talking directly to employees, there are other good ways of gathering information – talking to people who have returned from assignments, relocation advisors and local staff will all elicit useful information about making policies.

Understand how expats deal with Christmas

It’s easy to forget that employees overseas will be forming new networks and adapting to new cultural norms. In some places, the best option is to escape for a holiday, or return home, in which case the main thing employers can do is simply be flexible about allowing annual leave.

For the people who stay there are several strategies that can be used to turn a potential problem into a positive, and embracing local culture is often a good option. However, there are risks to this too, as described by Helen Saks, a British woman living in France, who had a traditional fish dinner on Christmas Eve with some French friends:

“The next day I was expecting all those lovely smells of roast potatoes and Christmas dinner cooking, but there was nothing. I asked what we’d be eating, and they said: ‘We’ll just have leftovers.’ I was so disappointed – it felt all wrong!”

Another option is celebrating with other expats who share similar traditions. The London Expat American Meetup Group hosts regular events around traditions like Thanksgiving.

Make sure employees can access expat networks

Arriving in a new place where you don’t know anyone can be daunting, and one of the keys to maintaining a good quality of life is developing a network. Many larger cities have expat associations and networks already in place. These can range from informal Facebook groups or online mailing lists like Yuni-Net in Delhi to formal professional associations or social groups linked to a local embassy. Good relocation agents should be able to signpost these to new arrivals, which is particularly important for people arriving on assignment in the build-up to the festive period.

Help engage with local culture

Getting out and having fun is always a good way to combat loneliness or isolation, and people who are suffering homesickness may respond well to discovering some of the great things about the place they are living in. Employees may not know they can go to a midnight firework display on Christmas Eve in Buenos Aires or Boxing Day skiing in Finland.

Employers can help this process of discovery. Again, local knowledge is key – local hires and relocation advisors will have a wealth of knowledge about local events and celebrations, particularly those that might require advance booking.

Look at public holiday policies

Many organisations have localised public holiday policies so that employees get time off that is culturally appropriate. For example, Christmas Day and Boxing Day are public holidays in the UK, but not so in Thailand, where the nearest public holiday is Constitution Day on December 11. That means that a British employee on assignment in Thailand would need to spend two days of annual leave to take time off. Allowing flexibility for assignees can remove perceived unfairness.

Hosting cross-cultural events

Employers should also consider hosting a cross-cultural festive party in the build-up to Christmas. By giving the event a local twist, the company creates and extends its own culture, solidifying ties between head office and the local office. It helps assignees feel that they aren’t missing out, and local hires gain a better understanding of the organisational culture.

If you would like to understand more on how to support employees working overseas , please get in touch with a member of our friendly expert team today.

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