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Career Coach

Expat culture shock boomerangs in the office

About the author

Elizabeth is a freelance writer in California and a former Career Q&A columnist for the Wall Street Journal.

(Stockbyte)

Adjusting at work after a return from a foreign assignment can be challenging. (Stockbyte)

When human resource professional Eva Kempinger returned to Amsterdam after four years of working in France and Italy, she found that skills she had gained while away, such as intercultural awareness, weren’t nearly as valued in her home country as she expected. Instead, hiring managers focused only on what she didn’t have: HR experience related to the country’s new labour laws. Plus, they deemed the positions she had held in the other countries as “lower level.” To top it off, friends and colleagues kept correcting her when she spoke in her native tongue.

Many people believe that coming home from an overseas assignment will be a breeze compared to the adjustment of leaving for one. Going abroad as an expat, you are often given time to settle in and adjust to the new culture. But returning home, expectations are different, and there often isn’t adequate time or support for getting back up-to-speed. What’s more, overseas experiences aren’t always appreciated or understood by those around you.

“The expat, on paper at least, is going back to a situation with which he or she is familiar, and it is often incorrectly assumed that this process will be problem-free,” said Dorothy Dalton, a Brussels-based career transition coach. “Re-entry to a country of origin can actually be more stressful than outward transition.”

The longer the length of the assignment, the higher the stress levels, said Dalton. Expats often talk about “re-entry shock,” and reverse homesickness is quite common.

Feelings can include disorientation, confusion, anxiety and even fear, according to Barbara West, a partner at Melbourne-based intercultural consulting firm Culture Works.

“Whether overseas or upon returning home, this ‘shock’ occurs in the context of differences in communication styles, communication channels, cultural values, professional and social behaviours, and politeness rituals,” said West.

Easing the transition

There are steps for making your transition home easier, however. One of the most important happens long before the plane lands. Staying in touch with people from the home office while away can help avoid the rejection and isolation expats often feel upon returning, said Megan Fitzgerald, an international career coach based in Singapore.

“It's important to stay informed about what is going on in others’ lives and at work, so that upon return you can still be considered a member of, and can actively participate in, important social and professional conversations,” Fitzgerald said.

Maintaining relationships at the home office is also helpful if you decide not to return to the same position  — or if that position is no longer available. Getting the “word out” to home-country colleagues should start three to four months before returning, said Maria Kraimer, a professor of management and organisations at the Tippie College of Business at the University of Iowa.

It is also important not to rely on any one manager to “look out” for your career. Instead, have a roster of people you can count on. That roster should include other expats who are going through, or have been through, similar situations, said Fitzgerald. Having a kindred spirit can be helpful in getting through stressful and unsettling periods when “home just does not feel like home anymore,” she said.

For some expats, finding a re-entry job that is aligned with career aspirations and takes advantage of new skills acquired abroad is the challenge. To help insure a satisfying job on your return, it is best to develop a plan for repatriation even before departure, said Fitzgerald. While not all companies will guarantee a position when the assignment is complete, some recognise the high cost of posting an employee overseas, and they want a return on their investment.

“They also recognise that employees with a global profile and experience can be rare and valuable assets,” said Fitzgerald. “These organisations are willing and even eager to find a way to align their international assignee's work to current and future global business objectives so there are key roles for them to play upon their return.”

In many ways, you’ll want to treat your homecoming like any other overseas assignment, said Culture Work’s West. Do your research into changes at the company, the current discussions around the water cooler and even pop culture references. Also, give yourself time and employ strategies for combating culture shock, such as maintaining links — both physical and emotional — with the place you just left.

Many expats make the mistake of thinking that everyone will be as enamoured with their overseas experience as they are. Think again, according to the University of Iowa’s Kraimer.

You’ll need to prepare a three-sentence answer to the question, "Oh, you lived in [fill in the blank]. What was that like?” or “How did you like it?” “Your answer to this question should take no more than three minutes,” she said. Most people lose interest after that amount of time.

Career Coach is a twice-monthly column on BBC Capital in which we consider the career turning points and questions many professionals face. We welcome questions from readers at careercoach@bbc.com.

Feelings can include disorientation, confusion, anxiety and even fear.