How an overseas job can affect family life

Imagine finding a family home in four days flat in a town you've never been to. Now imagine that involves moving country, too.

That's something Nicki Thorogood knows all about.

In 2008, her husband's company said it wanted him to move from England to New York, starting in January of 2009. Nicki moved four months earlier, because she didn't want to make her three children uproot themselves halfway through the school year.

"Basically, I moved with the boys on my own into a house, into a town, into a country I didn't know," she says. The transition hasn't been easy.

While Nicki says her children were treated like "rock stars" at their new school, she had to leave her job at a childcare centre and found suburban life to be a struggle.

Now, more than three years later, her house in a New York suburb is filled with images of the union jack, and she still dreams of returning to England.

"I'm torn between going home and staying," she says. "If someone said I've got a one-way ticket, I'd take it."

Keeping spouses happy

Moving an employee abroad is staggeringly expensive. The living expenses, relocation allowance and benefits can cost three to four times the employee's normal compensation, according to most estimates.

Given such high stakes, companies from Shell to Dupont are looking at the factors that can lead to successful stints abroad for their employees. A happy spouse has long been, and continues to be, the best predictor of a successful move.

"The number one reason for assignment failure is the family's inability to acclimatise and adjust to the new location," says Andrew Walker, the director of global mobility at WorleyParsons, which oversees more than 3,000 employees who move abroad.

"As long as I've been in field, it's been an issue," he says. "But it's only within the last five or 10 years that organisations have been more pro-active about addressing it."

On average, about 80% of expatriate workers move with their spouses.

As recently as 20 years ago, most of these so-called "trailing spouses" were women who stayed at home with the family.

But over the past decades, more and more are looking to find work.

Kathleen van der Wilk-Carlton, the director of the Permits Foundation, which lobbies governments to allow spouses to get work visas, warns: "Employers ignore this at their peril."

Career coaching

Finding a job as a trailing spouse is difficult - and it's getting harder.

According to a 2011 study of global employment trends, 60% of trailing spouses were employed before relocating, but only 15% found work after they moved - down significantly from the peak in 2006.

"This is a huge problem for corporations because they are now finding it increasingly difficult to find a significant talent pool candidate to staff these overseas assignments and these transfers internationally," says Scott Sullivan, executive vice-president at Brookfield Global Relocation Services, which produced the report.

Brigitte Hug, who runs Dupont's global relocation office in the US, says that the company tries to tailor relocation packages to the employee, and that the package typically includes some sort of career coaching both before and after the move, as well as relocation support and job assistance for spouses.

But even though the number one reason for assignment failure is spousal unhappiness, only 18% of spouses felt they had been adequately supported by their partner's companies, according to a 2009 survey conducted by the Permits Foundation.

The visa trap

Tony Magnus thought he was given the opportunity of a lifetime when his employer, Infomedia, asked him to move from its headquarters in Sydney, Australia, to expand the business in the US market.

So he moved his wife and two young children to Detroit, where they bought a home in the suburbs.

Five years later, Tony is still required to reapply for a work visa every few years.

His mortgage is "underwater" and his wife, who worked for Compaq in Australia, can't work full-time in the US because of visa restrictions.

"It does give you that sense of being temporary," he says. "You feel like you're never going to be permanent."

The general trend in granting spouses work visas has been toward protectionism, says Peggy Smith, chief executive of Worldwide ERC, a global mobility industry group. She cited China, Japan, Brazil, and India as places that were particularly difficult for spouses looking to work after they had relocated.

Ironically, Australia is singled out by almost everyone as being particularly hospitable to spouses who want to work as expatriates.

'Invisible' spouse

The stress of visas, job searching and culture shock can perhaps inevitably lead to marital discord.

Image caption Anne Egros followed her husband round the world before founding her own consulting business

Very few companies focus on the emotional fallout that can occur before, during and after the move, says Jacqueline van Haaften, managing director at Global Connection, a consultancy that has advised more than 8,000 expat spouses for companies like Nike and Cargill.

"What people don't think about is the things in your relationship that will change because you might have had similar jobs but now the balance is gone." Couples usually "come home very married or extremely divorced", she says.

"As a spouse you're almost invisible," says Patti Fogarty, who moved to New York with her husband. "It almost didn't have anything to do with me, it had to do with my husband and his career. I felt just stuck in the middle."

Patti at first tried to stay in England while her husband's work took him to the US because her youngest son was still in school - and, she admits, because she didn't want to leave England.

But at a certain point, after years of shuttling back and forth, she realised that: "I could stay in my house for the rest of my life but I might not have had a marriage to go with it."

After nearly five years of moving back and forth, she moved to New York permanently in 2006.

Creating opportunities

Despite the considerable strains involved in being a trailing spouse, the arrangement can have its benefits.

Peggy Smith, of Worldwide ERC, says she has noticed an increase in entrepreneurship among trailing spouses. They "know there is not an employment opportunity in 95% of the cases" when they go abroad, so they "create a business opportunity for themselves in that country".

Anne Egros is one of those entrepreneurs.

Trained in pharmacy in France, she was initially a partner who moved abroad for work. But as her husband's job took them from Japan to Belgium, and then to New Jersey, she has reinvented herself as an executive coach and now runs her own consulting business called Zest and Zen.

Being an expat "gave me opportunities, it worked very well for me", she says. "And it's very difficult to explain, but when you are an expat, you are always different, you are always special. And I like to be special."

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