Reverse Culture Shock (or Why Do I Hate Being Back Home?)

Mary Dougherty – Shepell-fgi

When employees begin an international assignment, they often experience “culture shock” in the host location.  Many companies provide support services to ease the transition for these families, ensuring a quick adjustment and a productive and satisfying international assignment experience.  But what happens when the assignment is over, and the family heads home?

  • 25% of expatriates leave the company within 2 years of repatriation (National Foreign Trade Council survey)
  • 69% experience significant “reverse culture shock” (Bureau of National Affairs, Washington)

Coming Home is Not So Easy
Repatriation is not as simple as it sounds.  “Reverse Culture Shock” is often experienced by those returning from an international assignment, and this can have tremendous impact on professional and personal adjustment.  The challenges inherent to living in a different cultural context for a significant period of time do not end with adapting to the host culture; they continue through the process of returning home and re-adjusting to what was left behind.  In fact, it is often those who have adjusted most successfully abroad who have the most difficulty returning home.

It can take up to 18 months to adjust and reintegrate after an international assignment; adjustment issues effect employees and their families both personally and professionally.  Understanding the problems that they may encounter upon reintegration is the key to a successful repatriation.

What to Watch For
Here are some common symptoms or situations that repatriating families encounter:

  • irritability/ resentment
  • sense of difference and disconnect
  • disappointment
  • inability to concentrate
  • low morale
  • change in values/attitudes
  • marital conflict
  • fatigue
  • parent/child conflict
  • educational/adjustment problems for children
  • depression
  • feeling unappreciated personally/professionally
  • decreased productivity
  • loneliness

What Can Employers Do?
One way to lessen the negative impact of repatriation is to provide support to the employee and their family in the form of a “Repatriation Debriefing.” Skilled repatriation counselors can help these individuals recognize the symptoms of reverse culture shock, and provide techniques to manage through it effectively.  To support family members, providing an opportunity for the employee and family to candidly and confidentially discuss repatriation challenges with regard to both work-related and family experiences is key. This process provides an opportunity to examine and explore the potential difficulties of returning home, as well as assisting in problem solving and goal setting.

Employers should also carefully manage repatriation assignments to ensure that expatriates are retained in their organizations, and that the new skills acquired during the international assignment are recognized and leveraged.

Finally, don’t minimize the importance of taking care of the family.  When an employee relocates, so does their family, and the impact on a spouse and children can be profound.

These steps will help minimize turnover amongst repatriates, preserving your international assignment investment, and also ensure that your repatriating employees are quickly and effectively reintegrated into their home country.

More About Mary:

13 responses to “Reverse Culture Shock (or Why Do I Hate Being Back Home?)

  1. Repatriation can prove to be a difficult experience for an expatriate and company’s support is essential. In addition to that, it’s important to empower yourself to be able to manage the effects of “reverse” culture shock. I wrote a post on what contributes to difficulties during repatriation — comparing what you have now with what you used to have during your expat post is a dangerous path. You can read the post here:

    Also, I recommend a very handy culture shock management kit — a very easy and straightforward system that helps you manage culture shock in any situation:

    Good luck!

  2. I have been an expat twice in my career. I remember coming home and the first few months I remember looking at all the stores everywhere and thinking “how obscene”. The U.S. has too much “stuff”.

  3. Often overlooked is the impact of repatriation on school aged children. Because expectations and reality clash harshly – often children look forward to moving home to their friends and former school but no longer fit in because they have changed so significantly – children can become depressed and may suffer academically as well as socially after returning home. They may not be prepared to handle the curriculum of their former school either. They can be ahead in some subjects but behind in others. Teachers may feel threatened when their skills are accelerated and repatriating students may feel inadequate when they are accustomed to being capable and suddenly can’t keep up.

    Repatriation: A How-To Guide for Returning Wisely, by Dr. Jill Kristal and myself provides tips for companies and families to anticipate problems and stragegies to solve them before they arise.

  4. Thanks Mary, I now can put a name on what I have been feeling for the past three years.
    I have been expatriate for two years after 5 years of extensive business travel, and 7 years of education abroad.
    Your title perfectly describe what I feel : I hate being back home and I can only think of flying out again.
    I have changed jobs three times since I am back and right now I have decided to take a sabbatical leave to figure out what I am going to do next.
    It helps me to understand that what has happened to me is normal.
    Thanks a lot for that.

  5. globalcoachcenter

    Michele, a lot of people go through what you are going through (in fact, I am going through this myself now!). And you don’t have to do it alone — I regularly work with people who experience reverse culture shock — and I’d be happy to work with you to help you through it and to help you figure out what’s “calling” you next. Should this be of interest, please visit my website for more information: Good luck!

  6. A portion of the information we are responsible for on the GPHR Exam covers this subject. In fact, many employers do not take the time that is essential to “re-pat” employees. Employees, more often that not, have a greater adjustment period returning home than adjusting to their host culture. When employers do not prepare employees and their families for this stage, everyone is hurt – employees, their family and the organization. This is the stage when many Ex Pats leave their organizations…think of the investment walking out the door!
    Roberta Jackson, SPHR, GPHR

  7. I am a Counseling Psychologist in Shanghai, China. I have been an expat for probably 20 of my professional years. Living abroad has an adrenalin component that is irreplaceable. When families or individuals return home, they have a difficult time finding a lifestyle that matches the lifestyle abroad. Even conversation amongst friends and colleagues is different.

    Living in a foreign country offers a total different view of the world. You are exposed to different cultures just within the expatriate community. For both the adults and the children this is an amazing experience. When one returns to their home countries, friends and colleagues are really not that interested in hearing about other cultures after the fist few sentences. Conversation quickly turns to the repetitive news or the latest TV sitcom or American Idol.

    It is much more difficult to repatriate than expatriate. Once you experienced the world, you want more…

  8. Most expats experience reenty shock and it can have severe consequences. In over 35 years of working with reentry shock I have seen both positive and negative consequences (marriage and divorce). Those who receive repat training and counseling adjust much better than those left to figure this out on their own. Yet few companies provide this service. Additionally few do a good job at succession planning for returning expats. As a consequence many (40%) leave thier organizations to find an organization or position where they feel valued.

  9. The most helpful advice I received came from Robin Pascoe via her book “Homeward Bound”. She says “The harsh reality is that you are forever going to feel like you don’t belong.”

    Although friends, family and colleagues may expect you to be just the same as you used to be you need to come to terms with the fact that you have forever been changed by your expat experiences.

    I think I had been trying to get back to my former self, which obviously I cannot do. Understanding that I will always feel different means I no longer feel I have to try and turn my back on my expat experiences or try to “get over” them. I need to incorporate them into my “new me.”

    My husband repatriated when he was a teenager and found it very difficult. In fact we’ve only just realized how much it has probably influenced his whole life.

    Unless you’ve been through it, I think it’s hard to understand the impact of a period of expatriation so not only do most companies still not see the need for post assignment services, but neither do the assignees themselves.

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  11. Thank you all for sharing your thoughts, feelings, and perspectives. I feel much better knowing I am not the only one having a difficult time. It has been a real challenge for me over the past five years to adjust to life back in America. I spent seven years overseas. It was the most rewarding, enthralling, and unforgettable experience I have had in my lifetime. So naturally returning home has been a drag to say the least. I was wondering what has helped you cope with the feelings of depression, isolation, and unshakeable desire to return overseas?

  12. GlobalCoachCenter

    Just a note for all those who have gone through repatriation — I recently developed the Repatriation Guide E-course, that helps manage emotional response to the process of repatriating home. I am looking for a couple of testers — to go through the guide, test it and let me know how it worked. The information on the guide is here Please contact me through my blog if interested.

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