Bizcuits | Vulnerable expatriates in crisis

Leanda Lee

Beyond the glamour and the rewards of an expatriate life there are inevitable difficulties caused by stresses of adjusting to a strange environment.  Where personal stress and insecurities meet lack of support and ignorance of the local context, there can lie the dark side of overseas work.

This Dark Side is the subject of a paper published in the Journal of Global Mobility this week by four global authorities in expatriate research.  The title suggests that when mismanaged and poorly understood, expatriation can be a “highway to hell” for the expatriate, their families and the organisations they work for.

McNulty, Lauring, Jonasson and Selmer take examples of expatriates in Singapore who have lost their way onto pathways of crisis. In newspapers and online between 2013 and 2018, the writers found stories of poorly behaving expatriates which ended badly, often with more than one tragic outcome: death, injury, imprisonment, job loss, deportation, statelessness, forced repatriation, destitution, and separation or divorce. Excluding non-preventable crises such as cancer and accidents, an analytical review of 85 cases suggest that there are unique sets of characteristics that can cause problems specifically for expatriates.

There are many cases similar to that of the German CEO who attacked a taxi-driver for refusing to drive him because he was drunk: assaulting providers of public transport services in Singapore is a jailable offence. The CEO was charged, convicted and sent to jail.

The tragic story of an attempted murder-suicide which ended in the death of a five-year-old and the jailing of the Belgian father for culpable homicide is a reminder of how badly acrimonious divorces and family law cases across borders can go. The stresses of drawn-out and emotive legal battles, more so in jurisdictions far from home, can impact so detrimentally on psychological health.

In all 85 cases, the crises are man-made and could have been avoided. These are the kinds of stories, even in Macau, that are told of drunken colleagues with a “he should have known better” post-script. Oftentimes, however, expatriates really do not know any better. They are uninformed or remain blissfully ignorant of appropriate behaviours and responses, or worse, arrogantly and presumptively take the position that the local way makes no sense, or the normal requirements do not apply to them and they can get away with bad or even illegal acts. Euphemistically known as moral flexibility, morals that people at home would abide by are relaxed when expatriates are under stress and presented with temptations and that may temporarily relieve day-to-day stresses.  Illicit relationships or abusive consumption of alcohol and drugs – that in these cases triggered other greater and far reaching consequences – are easier to justify when people become aware through exposure to other cultures that the morals they grew up with are not absolute.

These expatriate crises are said to be problems born of poor person-environment fit: it could be a lack of knowledge of or poor adjustment to the local place, or even a new-found awareness of not being able to act as a fully functioning adult given the cultural and/or linguistic differences. This then can trigger a series of events leading to shattering crises.

The main sources of support are the people that expatriates have day-to-day contact with. These can, however, also be the causes of conflict: a family can sense problems early and support the expatriate, but just as easily become dysfunctional. The social tendency to live in “expatriate bubbles”, while offering comfort, can further isolate expatriates from local knowledge. Companies could offer numerous forms of support, but may relinquish any duty of care, choosing to protect their own reputations.

Recognition by those around of an expatriates’ initial small errors and stressors, and timely intervention before they turn into maladaptive behaviours may be key to minimising expatriate crises.

Categories Opinion