What’s the Secret to Cross-Cultural Adjustment for Expatriate Employees? It Could Be Mindfulness

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Companies often send valued employees overseas, and these new cultural situations require stressful and often radical adjustments on the part of the expatriate employee. Ideally, the employee will successfully adjust to their new cultural environment, succeed at the work they are assigned, and seamlessly repatriate once their assignment is complete. But things are not always that simple: expatriates who do not successfully integrate into the culture of the host country can suffer from emotional exhaustion, anxiety, and even depression. And by some estimates, over 50% of these employees experience such problems within two years of repatriation, and ultimately leave the company soon afterward, representing a costly loss of human capital.

Culverhouse’s Dr. Maura J. Mills, along with collaborators Drs. Adam Pervez (Mississippi State) and Graham H. Lowman (Kennesaw State) – both of whom received their doctorates from Culverhouse in recent years – considered the challenges of cross-cultural adjustment in their recent article, “Mindfulness as Facilitating Expatriate Development: Advancing Knowledge Sharing and Promoting Cultural Adjustment Abroad,” published in July 2022 in Management International Review. The authors propose that mindfulness training and practice may hold heretofore unrealized value for facilitating expatriate development and cross-cultural adjustment. Drawing on social identity theory, they suggest that without mindfulness, expatriates are more likely to fall into the “automatic” behavior of preferring in-group interactions (people who look, talk, or think like “us”), which can get in the way of cross-cultural adjustment.

But by consciously practicing mindfulness before, during, and after the cross-cultural experience, expatriates are more likely to observe present thought patterns without judgment, thereby breaking down the perceived barriers between in-group and out-group members. The authors build on this by drawing on broaden and build theory to suggest that this can lead to positive interactions and relationships that are more likely to bring about improved well-being and access to resources via increased knowledge-sharing. The latter, in turn, stands to positively impact both short-term cultural adjustment and long-term global mindset for expatriated employees, representing a relatively enduring positive mental shift about intercultural experiences.

Practically, the researchers suggest that companies that deploy employees internationally should consider mindfulness training to facilitate adjustment to the cross-cultural experience. In fact, the authors put forth the possibility that companies might even enjoy greater employee retention post-repatriation if mindfulness training is offered before and during the cross-cultural experience. On the whole, then, a greater focus on mindfulness and its ensuing benefits stand to lead to better experiences for the expatriate – as well as greater ROI for the sending company.

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