- Expats lack awareness of many employer benefits and services;
- 78% access medical care while on assignment;
- Expat trends: older, on shorter assignments, leaving family behind;
- Experience of expats in the U.S. can be as tough as in BRIC countries;
- Needs vary by country; highest satisfaction in Australia, Europe Expats seek understanding of the expat experience from HR.
In the century since Ernest Hemingway and others romanticized expatriate life in Paris, the globally mobile population has grown dramatically along with increased global business. Family stress, cultural differences, increased workloads and burn-out can undermine up to one third of all global expatriate assignments, despite a significant investment by multinational companies estimated at three to five times an employee’s salary. The NFTC and Cigna's Global Health Benefits business sponsored a new independent study of expatriates to gain insights into their perceptions and experiences and to track trends since Cigna and the NFTC conducted a similar study in 2001 – all with the goal of helping employers better understand and satisfy the needs of their globally mobile workforce.
“While many industry surveys illustrate the job employers feel they’ve been doing to prepare and support their corporate expats, little has been heard from the expats themselves in the last decade. This survey allows us to examine disconnects between employees and employers – and sheds light on how to better support the globally mobile workforce, and in turn, the companies who appreciate their valued assets around the world,” said Sheldon Kenton, Senior Vice President, Global Employer Sales, Cigna.
According to this survey, in most cases, employers are providing the resources rated as most important by expats, including general relocation services (80 percent), settling in services (63 percent) and medical preparedness (65 percent). However, there are many unmet expectations among the expats surveyed:
59 percent of expats said they were unaware of their employer’s repatriation assistance and didn’t know whether their employer would track what happens to them after they return home. This low awareness score can be translated into dissatisfaction, as expats perceive lack of employer interest in them after their assignment concludes.
Mobile technology was not a key factor in these expats’ communication needs, with 70 percent saying they relied on their laptops to access information and only 10 percent saying they preferred to use a smartphone.
78 percent of expats or their family members have accessed medical care while on assignment. Expats under age 34 were considerably less informed about the specifics of their health insurance plans. For example, their uncertainty about claim handling was four times higher than the average of other age segments, and their lack of knowledge about where to access health care services was triple that of other segments.
The survey also indicated that having a family greatly influences an expat’s health care behaviors. Those on assignment with spouses or partners and children were most likely to access care, with percentages as high as 91 percent in these segments compared to single expats (64 percent) and expats without children (67 percent.) Expats with spouses, partners and children back in their home country were most likely to seek routine treatment in their home country rather than locally where they were assigned. For example, only 41 percent of expats without family had accessed care locally while 83 percent of expats with spouses or family with them accessed care locally.
Bill Sheridan, Vice President International Human Resources, National Foreign Trade Council stated, “It’s imperative for employers to ensure that their most valued resource – their human capital – is equipped with all of the information necessary to ensure a successful expatriate assignment. Valuable employer-sponsored programs and services made available to expats scarcely yield their intended benefit when they aren’t effectively communicated.”
Trends from 2001 to 2013
When compared to expats in the Cigna-NFTC 2001 survey, today’s expat is older, on shorter assignments, and is leaving his or her spouse and family back home more often. In 2001, expats aged 25 to 34 made up 35 percent of the survey, down to 17 percent in 2013. In 2001, eight percent of expats with a spouse or partner were traveling without their spouse or partner on their assignments, while in 2013, that number nearly tripled to 23 percent. In 2001, 18 percent of expats with children did not have their children with them on assignment, and in 2013 that number almost doubled to 34 percent.
The trend toward shorter assignments has doubled since the 2001 survey, with 13 percent expected to be on assignment a year or less in 2013, compared with six percent in 2001. Today, 37 percent expect to be on assignment two to three years. Expats in the 2013 survey were seasoned professionals, with 44 percent having one to three assignments already and 50 percent of respondents saying they’re likely to take additional assignments in the future.
In the 2001 survey, five percent of expats were from Asia, a number that has grown to 13 percent in the 2013 survey. In 2001, 63 percent of expats were from North America, down to 49 percent in 2013. Other major trends in expat assignments include the shift from Europe, where 43 percent of expats surveyed were assigned in 2001 versus 22 percent in 2013, and in Middle East/North Africa/Greater Arabia, where six percent were assigned in 2001 compared with 23 percent today.
Customization of Assignment Packages by Country Is Critical
Where expats are assigned makes a significant difference in their experiences and perceptions. Satisfaction with their employers’ efforts was lowest from expatriates on assignment in Sub-Saharan Africa, Middle East, and South America and highest in Australia and Europe. Survey respondents noted the following priorities by their location:
- Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa: Medical preparedness tops the list
- North and South America: Consultation regarding financial and tax consequences ranks much higher in importance in these regions
- Central America and Sub-Saharan Africa: Assistance with schools is more critical
- Asia and Middle East: Cross-cultural training ranks slightly higher
Experience versus expectations also brings variation:
- Central America and Middle East: These regions had the highest percentage of unmet expectations in relation to the quality of life—this dissatisfaction was more than double other regions
- Australia and Europe: Highest satisfaction in quality of life category
- Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa: Highest amount of dissatisfaction related to impact on the family
- North America: While overall 13 percent of respondents reported unmet expectations regarding their assignment benefits package, nearly double (21 percent) reported dissatisfaction in the United States and Canada
“Survey results suggest many employers may be providing expatriates with services that adequately address the wider population, but not those on assignment in lesser developed countries,” said Sheridan. “Enhanced understanding, awareness and flexibility are necessary when considering the complexity of global assignments. Customization is key, as a one-size-fits-all approach to developing packages for expatriates simply cannot provide a pathway to success in every geography.”
U.S. Can Be as Difficult as BRIC countries
Industry surveys of employers indicate they believe the most difficult countries for expat assignments include Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. Results from the Cigna-NFTC expatriate study confirm some difficulties in these regions, but also point out other key areas:
- Middle East: High degree of dissatisfaction, higher importance ratings regarding several components (including services provided by employers, such as cultural training and health benefits)
- Sub-Saharan Africa: In addition to South Africa, there are a number of other countries in the lower half of Africa where medical preparedness is a great concern and the need for school assistance is more critical
- North America: The complexities of a number of issues (ease of finding a doctor, language issues, knowledge of the health care system, understanding of financial and tax consequences) have led to much lower satisfaction scores than other regions—especially in the United States—which remains the most frequent country for expatriate assignments.
“Greater recognition of the challenges of being on assignment in the United States is vital. Navigating a complex health system, as well as developing an understanding of the financial and tax consequences of working in the U.S., all present considerable challenges to U.S.-bound expats. My personal experience as an expat has further driven home the crucial need for better preparation, guidance and support,” Kenton said.
The NFTC believes that these candid insights from corporate expats can prove valuable to all companies with globally mobile employees. “An enhanced understanding of how expats feel about their experiences should cause companies to give greater consideration to the many factors that influence the success of global assignments when designing packages,” Sheridan said.
Expats Need Understanding from HR
When asked open-ended questions regarding their experiences, expats frequently cited human resource-related issues.
“Given the integral role human resource professionals play in designing programs for expatriates, an enhanced awareness of the typical challenges and potential barriers to success for expatriates while they’re on assignment is critical. The survey results indicate companies could benefit from elevating this group’s understanding of the unique needs and concerns of this population, either through consultancy or hiring HR professionals with actual expatriate assignment experience,” Sheridan said.
Expatriates volunteered a list of specific concerns:
- Lack of understanding – expatriates state many HR personnel have likely never experienced living internationally; therefore, they may have low awareness of the type of challenges expatriates face
- Relocation – expatriates cite a lack of clear information regarding this process
- Real estate market differences – HR representatives may not know about these differences
- Responsiveness – expatriates in various industries point out delays in response time
- Slower and or confusing processes, such as work permits
- Mobility and Relocation Policy limitations
- Cost of travel
“Like most studies comparing and contrasting viewpoints of employers and their employees, there exists a gap that, if understood and addressed, can guide employers to make impactful decisions to better design and communicate assignment packages that more adeptly address the needs of their employees abroad and increase their satisfaction,” Kenton said.
About the Survey
Similar to the 2001 study, the “Expatriate Trends Study 2013” was conducted though a web survey instrument. No self-identifying information was captured, keeping all individual responses anonymous and confidential. This chosen method of anonymity encourages more candid feedback from respondents. Data Collection occurred by The Marketing Audit over eight weeks from August 2 to September 30, 2013 with a sample sizes of 1,511 in 140 countries and a confidence rate of 95 percent, with margin of error at +/- 2.3 percent. Respondents were recruited through multiple channels, which included member companies of NFTC and their expatriate populations, clients of Cigna Global Health Benefits, and other channels.
The inaugural study, which took place in 2001, explored the views of both international employers and their expatriate employees—before, during, and after international assignments. Throughout this report, references to the overall findings from the 2001 study explain how the climate for expats has evolved over the past decade. The 2001 study surveyed 143 human resources executives (representing the employer perspective) and 453 expatriates on assignment in more than 70 countries around the world.