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How Homesickness Can Harm Migrants Performance At Work


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Homesickness is natural for anyone who lives away from their home for any prolonged period of time, but this is a particular risk for the new generation of globalists, for whom several hundred million live outside of their country of origin. That the coronavirus pandemic has led to borders being shut and airlines canceling routes has only exacerbated the disconnect people can feel from their homeland, and more importantly, their friends and family. 

This growing diaspora spread their wings in a bid to better their life, and the spread of mass media convince us that we can be equally at home anywhere in the world. The benefits of this movement can be tremendous, both in terms of the fresh perspectives the individual gains but also from an organizational and societal perspective as new skills and ideas crisscross the globe.

There is an unmistakable pain involved in leaving home, however, with this pain often hidden away. Indeed, the clinical name for the condition, nostalgia, often invokes visions of a bygone time rather than a pang for our homeland. Even as the diaspora grows, discussions around homesickness, and its effects, are rare, and especially in the workplace. It’s one of those ’embarrassing’ impediments that one is expected to suck up and get on with it.  

Homesickness at work

New research from Harvard Business School highlights the scale of this mistake, especially in terms of our productivity at work. The paper highlights the psychological costs associated with moving away from your hometown or homeland, but also how these costs can be mitigated by sensitive policies and management.

“These psychological costs of moving are really important because, if you think about it, if you get career benefits and, in many cases, a wage increase from moving, what might be holding people back is their attachment to their hometowns,” the researchers say. “This social attachment is not an economic construct; it’s a psychological construct—the happiness one gets by being close to family and friends—and it needs to be taken into account.”

The researchers quizzed workers at an Indian technology company. The company randomly assigns people to work at one of eight production centers across India. The firm typically allows workers to travel home for religious festivals, such as Diwali, but only in their first year on the job. More experienced workers typically have to stay put and hold the fort.

These workers revealed that it’s often a struggle for them to stay away from home at the best of times, but during traditionally family occasions, such as Diwali, it’s especially hard.

Affect on performance

The researchers attempted to gauge the impact this was having on the performance of the workers who were permitted to go home and on those who were forced to remain behind. It seemed that those who were not given any flexibility over returning home had a reduced likelihood of achieving a high performance rating.

In a global workforce, this notion of vacation flexibility is important, with the authors citing the example of Chinese migrants, who may prefer for their vacation to coincide with the Chinese New Year rather than the traditional December period. 

While it’s not immediately clear whether the decline in performance of those without the vacation flexibility was due to the fact that they had it in their first year, and then lost is it in later years, it nonetheless highlights the need for flexible management practices for those who are separated from their families and their homeland.

Creating a bond

Managers might also benefit from policies designed to foster a greater bond between employees. The research revealed that the stronger the friendships that existed between colleagues, the happier they were, despite missing out on family events during festive periods.

There are well known costs of migration in areas such as regulation, visas, licensing and economic costs, but the psychological impact of homesickness is perhaps an under-explored area, especially in the workplace.

Whether it’s working to establish greater bonds between employees, or having greater flexibility in terms of holiday allowances, there are ways that managers can mitigate the prospect of homesickness impacting on workers’ productivity.

Global personality

It might also be worth considering the personality of the individuals concerned. 

INSEAD’s Linda Brimm believes that natural global citizens have three core personality traits:

  • A growth mindset – this is something examined in great depth by Stanford’s Carol Dweck, and can be characterized as a belief that intelligence can be developed, and a desire to learn new things, embrace new challenges and generally persist in the face of setbacks.
  • A global mindset – which is defined as the ability to see and understand the world from multiple perspectives.
  • A creative mindset – the last characteristic is one that is defined by attitudes such as curiosity and a tolerance for ambiguity.

It’s important to determine if this is the case for the migrants in your team. A recent study from Florida Atlantic University suggests that the personality of employees will go a long way towards determining whether those overseas deployments are successful or not.

“Oftentimes, expatriates have difficulty adjusting to this new environment. They can suffer poor well-being, experience conflict between their work life and family life, perform poorly and turnover,” the authors say. “All expatriates are different. Maybe some are more adept to adjusting effectively where others aren’t. We wanted to understand what characteristics of expatriates make them more or less likely to adjust effectively.”

The data revealed that those who responded best to overseas assignments tended to be extroverts who were emotionally stable and open to new experiences. The authors suggest this is because extroverts are better at forming new social networks that help them with both the informational and emotional aspects of adjusting to a new culture. Emotional stability was also crucially important however, as the whole experience of adapting to a new culture can be incredibly stressful.

Working overseas can be hugely advantageous, but it is not without risks, and it’s promising that we are gaining a greater insight into what those risks are, and how they can be mitigated.

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