Wellbeing Initiatives: The Role of Mindfulness During International Assignments
Organisations are increasingly focusing on improving employee and family wellbeing in the global mobility context. Dr Sue Shortland explains how mindfulness can help individuals to manage stress while on international assignments.
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, 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 and if these are manageable they can result in positive growth being achieved. 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.
THE ROLE OF MINDFULNESS WHEN WORKING ABROAD
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 education, housing, security, 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.
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.”
Individuals may also worry about decisions that they have – was the decision to relocate 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 to create space for a wider perspective on what is happening to us in the current moment.
FOCUS ON POSITIVE FEEDBACK DURING INTERNATIONAL ASSIGNMENTS
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 side-lined, 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 in to 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.
ASSIGNEES AND FAMILIES ARE NOT ALONE
Mindfulness also focuses on self-compassion and selfkindness. 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.
Positive feedback can be side-lined, 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.”
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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 ON WELLBEING AND MINDFULNESS
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