Think Global People autumn magazine in ipad viewer

Magazine Spring Issue

Out now  

Think Global People Magazine Net Zero article

The Role of Mindfulness in International Mobility

by | Mar 14, 2023

Organisations are increasingly focusing on improving employee and family wellbeing in the global mobility context. How can mindfulness provide a strategy for individuals to manage stress and improve their wellbeing while on international assignment?

 

Undertaking an international assignment can prove to be a stressful experience for employees and their family members.

Managing stress concerns our ability to cope with change. Relocating abroad and undertaking new duties in a different cultural environment is a source of significant stress to individuals.

Family members also experience stress when trying to cope with living in a different environment without the support of their usual friendship circle and direct contact, face-to-face, with family members. For children too, going to a new school can prove to be a significant challenge.

Everybody likes to operate within a comfort zone, but facing manageable challenges helps us to grow and develop.

Employees and their family members on assignment are able to experience different challenges: if these are manageable, then they can result in positive personal growth. However, when individuals feel overwhelmed and unable to cope with the new environment, this can lead to symptoms of both physical and mental ill-health.

 

Assignment stressors and the role of mindfulness

It is well known from research in the academic field that individuals on assignment worry about a number of different issues. These include dual careers, children’s educationhousingsecurity, and repatriation, to name just a few.

It is natural for everybody to be thinking ahead as to how they are going to manage their family circumstances and their careers while they are on assignment and what this means in the longer term when they come back home.

Individuals may also worry about decisions that they have taken in the past – was the decision to relocate abroad the right one for them and their family?

While thinking over our options is important to our decision-making, it is not necessarily helpful to our wellbeing, particularly when decisions made in the past cannot be changed and thoughts about the future may not be rooted in realistic expectations and understandings.

To maintain a sense of positive wellbeing, it is important to consider the present and the feelings and sensations that flow from this.

The notion of mindfulness within wellbeing addresses this point and helps individuals to concentrate on current situations and resources. It trains us to broaden our experiences without judgement rather than worrying about whether these may have negative consequences for the future.

A mindful approach trains us to be aware of what is happening at the present time and so mindfulness can act as tool for both our mental and physical wellbeing. It involves individuals paying attention to current moments of interest and focussing on pleasant sensations. It aims to provide a tool to clear our minds from the clutter of multiple thoughts (past and future) to create space for a wider perspective on what is happening to us in the current moment.

Everybody likes to operate within a comfort zone, but facing manageable challenges helps us to grow and develop.

— Dr Susan Shortland

Focus on positive feedback

As human beings, we are governed by the fight/flight reaction as this protects us from harm. We tend to focus more on negative rather than on positive feedback primarily because negative feedback may indicate potential harm and, as such, requires a reaction in order to maintain our safety.

As a result, the majority of our thoughts are often negative and we revisit them several times over to plan courses of action or chastise ourselves for mistakes made.

Positive feedback can be sidelined, downplayed or ignored as it does not generate any perception of threat. Nonetheless, positive feedback is very important as it provides us with a sense of wellbeing and happiness. Individuals are therefore advised to try to focus on positive feedback.

For those working abroad, it is important to focus on things that have gone well and hang on to these such that learning can take place from them. This advice applies also to non-working partners and children – the positive aspects that have gone right help individuals to settle into their new environment.

This is not to say that we do not learn from negative feedback, but a balance must be struck between actions to be taken in response to this and the positive wellbeing that can flow from understanding positive responses. A mindful approach therefore helps us to reduce negativity bias in order to focus on positive and happy outcomes rather than the worrying ones.

Assignees and families are not alone

Mindfulness also focuses on self-compassion and self-kindness. In the international environment it is easy for employees and family members to feel that they are in this alone and only they are experiencing difficulty in adjusting to the new environment. This is very unlikely. It is typical for all assignees and family members to experience adjustment difficulties, particularly on a first assignment.

Understanding that you are not the only one in this situation and that others also may be suffering problems adjusting can be helpful to improving one’s own sense of wellbeing. It is important therefore to recognise one’s own stress, as well as that of other assignees and their families. A mindful approach helps to build this attitudinal foundation.

Thus, in order to practice self-compassion, it is important to recognise our own stress, understand ourselves, and be aware that we are not alone.

Organisational support

Wellbeing has become a focus of organisational policy recently, particularly following the pandemic. Organisations may provide wellbeing support to international assignees and their families, for example, via employee assistance programmes.Wellbeing is also supported through safety and security procedures and medical care. While these are all valuable initiatives, organisations cannot “totally deliver wellbeing” to their assignee populations – individuals need to take action themselves in order to benefit from a sense of wellbeing and happiness.It is not always easy for individuals to do this though and so organisations may wish to consider supporting individuals and family members to undertake mindfulness training – either via courses or by using online materials.A mindful approach focusing on the present rather than worrying about the past and the future can bring out many benefits in an international assignment, supporting growth and development as well as positivity towards a new cultural environment.

For those working abroad, it is important to focus on things that have gone well and hang on to these such that learning can take place from them. This advice applies also to non-working partners and children – the positive aspects that have gone right help individuals to settle into their new environment.

— Dr Susan Shortland

Dr Sue Shortland is has committed her career to putting facts and peer-reviewed research within people professionals’ reach, including in roles at KPMG and the CBI, as well as academia and publishing.

.