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When Home Isn’t Home – A Study of Homesickness and Coping Strategies among Migrant Workers and Expatriates

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Abstract

This paper addresses, homesickness, an important issue in the area of international human resource management. It uses psychological and sociological literature to highlight the negative effects of homesickness on migrant workers and expatriates. These effects range from psychological disruptions to physical manifestations that affect the health and welfare of individuals and impact on work performance. The paper presents a model of coping strategies used by expatriates to deal with homesickness. This model is built on the empirical evidence collected. It concludes that there is significant amount of evidence found to substantiate that homesickness is an illness and detrimental to psychological and social well-being. It is crucial that further research is undertaken in this area as affecting expatriates because the size of the investment in expatriates commands that risks of failure are minimized.
International Journal of Psychological Studies; Vol. 4, No. 3; 2012
ISSN 1918-7211 E-ISSN 1918-722X
Published by Canadian Center of Science and Education
62
When Home Isn’t Home
A Study of Homesickness and Coping Strategies among Migrant
Workers and Expatriates
Dieu Hack-Polay1
1 Department of Management, London South Bank University, London, United Kingdom
Correspondence: Dieu Hack-Polay, Department of Management, London South Bank University, London, SE1
0AA, United Kingdom. Tel: 44-207-815-8256. E-mail: hackpod2@lsbu.ac.uk
Received: April 25, 2012 Accepted: May 16, 2012 Online Published: July 16, 2012
doi:10.5539/ijps.v4n3p62 URL: http://dx.doi.org/10.5539/ijps.v4n3p62
Abstract
This paper addresses, homesickness, an important issue in the area of international human resource management. It
uses psychological and sociological literature to highlight the negative effects of homesickness on migrant workers
and expatriates. These effects range from psychological disruptions to physical manifestations that affect the
health and welfare of individuals and impact on work performance. The paper presents a model of coping
strategies used by expatriates to deal with homesickness. This model is built on the empirical evidence collected. It
concludes that there is significant amount of evidence found to substantiate that homesickness is an illness and
detrimental to psychological and social well-being. It is crucial that further research is undertaken in this area as
affecting expatriates because the size of the investment in expatriates commands that risks of failure are
minimized.
Keywords: homesickness, migrants, expatriates, adjustment, multinationals
1. Introduction
Moving away from home has always led most people to feel homesick. Homesickness as a psychological state
created by the prospect or the reality of social isolation continues to attract research attention. Much of the
literature in international human resource management acknowledges that one of the key issues facing expatriates
and international workers is related to adjustment to the new place. For instance Black, Mendenhall & Oddou
(1991) identify a typology of adjustment difficulties formed of four major elements: individual factors, non-work
factors, organisational factors and job factors. However, while issues of culture and the family occupy a central
place, homesickness is not mentioned.
Homesickness is often covered in expatriate literature within the framework of culture shock, a connected but
different psychosocial reality linked to displacement. The article draws on the literature and interviews with
expatriates and migrant workers to show far reaching consequences of failure to tackle the problem. The first part
provides a definition of homesickness and examines some theoretical models and attempts to differentiate it from
culture shock; the second part considers the experiences of the expatriates and migrant workers interviewed to
explain the manifestation of homesickness and its consequences in the host country. The unique contribution of
this article to the literature resides in its contrasting of migrant workers’ and expatriates’ experience vis-à-vis
homesickness and the development of a typology of copying paradigms.
Van Tilburg, Vingerhoets & Van Heck (1996, p.899) define homesickness as “the commonly experienced state of
distress among those who have left their house and home and find themselves in a new and unfamiliar
environment”. The authors argue that homesickness is a big stressor which can cause ill-health in the people
affected, e.g., “depression, deficiencies in the immune system, diabetes”. The authors’ claim is not isolated. Other
scientists such as Ekblad (1993), Leff et al. (1970) and Weissman & Paykel (1973) found evidence to support
claims that homesickness affects health. If homesickness affects people on the move, even the voluntary migrants,
then there is strong probability that it could be more pronounced in expatriate populations. Indeed, the literature
suggests that homesickness is common among displaced people and is an illness of socially disorientated and
isolated people.
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2. Literature Review
2.1 Homesickness as an Illness
As an illness, according to medical and psychological evidence, homesickness has tangible symptoms which are
physical, cognitive and behavioural. Sufferers complain of gastric and intestinal pains, lack of sleep, headache,
feeling of tiredness and some eating disorders. Baier & Welch (1992), Fisher (1989) and many others noted much
evidence to support this claim. Examining the cognitive symptoms of homesickness, Fisher (1989) reveals that
there develop in the displaced person obsessive thoughts about home and sometimes simultaneously negative
thoughts about the new place. Fisher also identifies a state of absent mindedness in the people affected. There is a
tendency to idealise home rather than revisiting the problems one encountered there before. The behavioural
symptoms include “apathy, listlessness, lack of initiative and little interest in the new environment” (Van Tilburg
et al., 1996, p. 903). A number of expatriate and migrant studies acknowledged that there are numerous and
complex relationships between socio-cultural and psychological adjustment (Fisher, 1989; Lin 1986; Scullion &
Linehan, 2005). The business consequences of such psychological, physiological and social anomalies are
numerous and include lack of motivation, lack of team spirit and poor performance (Deresky, 2010). Omi and
Winnant (2003) found similar consequences in a study of migrant populations in East Kentucky, in the United
States. It should, however, be acknowledged that there may be elements related to personality and to the impact of
the micro-environment in which the expatriates and labour migrants arrive. If the individuals’ degree of
psychological damage, as a result of displacement, is high and has deeply affected morale and perhaps personality,
then they are more likely to display much of the pathological signs explained by Fisher and other psychologists. In
addition, the extent to which the new environment in which the international assignee or the migrant lands is
supportive determines the degree to which the newcomer experiences difficulties and the extent to which he or she
feels homesick. Although most studies of homesickness have been conducted on other groups of migrants, not
necessarily expatriates, given the above arguments it may not be unreasonable to attempt to speculate possible
generalisations of the conclusions to international assignees and to the social environments in which they arrive.
The cognitive and behavioural symptoms of homesickness are likely to lead to emotional problems such as low
mood, lack of security, loneliness, nervousness, lack of control and depression.
The symptoms and effects of homesickness help to appreciate the magnitude of the problem, especially as it may
affect long term international assignees and migrants. Expatriates may already be facing stress associated with
their involvement in major ventures in the home country; in addition they may be facing the dilemma of whether to
pursue their career within a MNC in their own home country or seek an international experience often seen as
“fetishism” for a high flying career as a global manager or consultant. Further dilemma is faced by dual-career
couples that may be worried about opportunities for the partner abroad or the security of their jobs on return. Such
a ‘psychological trauma’ coupled with isolation and difficult conditions in the new environment could culminate
into acute cases of homesickness. If support is not offered, then homesickness may contribute to protract their
suffering. In such a case, integration and successful rebuilding of broken lives are in great jeopardy and could in
turn affect the success of the international assignment as argued earlier.
Homesickness is often viewed as a periodic situation although in “severe cases these feelings are continuous”
(Fisher et al., 1984). The possibility of protracted period for homesickness enables to differentiate this condition
from culture shock, whose life cycle may be shorter. While homesickness is view as a serious illness, culture shock
is not always perceived in this way. Adler (1987) in particular rejects the association of culture shock with illness.
The seriousness of homesickness is further indicated by its prevalence although it has been suggested that it is hard
to assess prevalence of the ‘disease’ because of its periodicalness. Van Tilburg et al. (1996) contended that most
people experience homesickness especially in the early days following departure and only grave experiences are
reported spontaneously. Fisher et al., (1984) studied homesickness among boarding school pupils and they found
that only 18 per cent of cases were reported. However, a deeper investigation in the same school revealed a
prevalence rate of sixty to seventy per cent. This situation may translate the case of expatriates who fall within a
field that is under-researched as asserted and substantiated earlier in this paper. The little attention paid to
homesickness as a distinct condition in expatriate literature and, at the same time, there are the volumes of existing
evidence that a significant number of international assignments end in failure (Briscoe & Schuler, 2004).
Homesickness in expatriates and international workers could be a deeper and continuous process that should
command more attention if the success rate in international labour transfers is to improve.
2.2 Theoretical Models of Homesickness
Models of homesickness developed by Fisher (1989) are similar to Lin’s (1986) model of psychological and social
disruption in forced migrants. Fisher drew five models to the ways in which homesickness affect people who are
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away from their usual “home”. The first, the Loss and attachment model, assumes that the separation of the person
from his or her social and cultural networks is felt as a loss which sometimes turns into anxiety, grief and anger. If
this is persistent, the feeling of loss aggravates to become apathy and helplessness (Van Tilburg, et al., 1996, p.
903). These latter consequences of homesickness in the loss model are what occasion a situation of dependency for
the people affected and leads, in turn, to “depression, agoraphobia, two symptoms of home sickness” according to
the authors.
The second model, the Interruption and discontinuity model, is based on the fact that a break in the way people
used to lead their lives and fulfil daily routines can be an important stressor and the source of other negative
emotions like fear, anxiety, and distress. The individual becomes powerless because the basic foundations of his or
her real life have broken down. In order to survive in the new environment, the expatriate or displaced person
needs important adjustments that may not be achieved in the immediate future, or may not be achievable at all.
Thus, the more protracted the process of adjustment is, the more anxiety, fear and depression is developed which
could prevent, to a large extent, successful social and professional integration in the case of international assignees.
In the Reduced personal control model the displaced person is not in control of the new environment in which he or
she has landed. In many instances, the individual lacks coping mechanisms susceptible of helping to accommodate
the new social, cultural, technological and psychological conditions which can be perceived as opposing and
threatening forces. These observations led Burt (1993) to argue that the development of homesickness is mainly
due to the fact that the displaced person is not in control of the host environment.
The Change and transition model sees individuals as being obliged to accept to fulfil new roles that are supposed
to enable them to live in harmony with the host environment. The transition between “giving up” old roles and
habits to “adopt” the novel ones is particularly stressful. This has been observed in male and female migrant
behaviour. For instance, in research by the various migrant assisting organisations, some male migrants have been
reluctant to perform kitchen and childcare duties in the United Kingdom because in their original cultures such
duties are essential feminine Similarly, some female migrants have been reluctant to contemplate work with male
colleagues as this might clash with their own culture and religion (Hack-Polay, 2008).
The Conflict model, establishes that there is a perceived or potential conflict within the individual’s self. On the
one hand the displaced person has the will - or is rather forced - to learn and acquire new ways of seeing and
approaching things and life. On the other hand, there is a sort of resistance on the part of the individual to
accommodate the irreversible and uncontrollable wind of change. Thus, there exists in the mind of the displaced
persons a desire to return home but they are confronted with issues of security and safety.
Research in an area connected to home sickness, culture shock, uses a model referred to as the U-curve model,
developed by Oberg (1960). This model contends that newcomers to an alien culture go through four stages to
reach adjustment. These stages are honeymoon, crisis, recovery and adjustment. This model has been criticised
because some researchers argue that not all migrants go through the honeymoon phase (Selmer 1999). Models are
interesting to consider in an attempt to understand the behaviours of expatriates and international workers. Fisher’s
models offer a fairly comprehensive catalogue of what expatriates may feel like and do in the new socio-cultural
and professional context. However, instead of seeing Fisher’s theories as five different models, there could be a
realistic inclination to categorise them as one single model of homesickness with different stages. Indeed, it is not
rare to observe that an individual goes through more than one, and sometimes, all the stages defined by Fisher’s
model. These stages may be experienced or felt simultaneously or occur gradually. Some theorists suggest possible
interventions or remedy to deal with homesickness.
3. Method
Taking a qualitative approach, the research used unstructured interviews to obtain information. The investigation
sought to answer the following research questions: (1) To what extent does preparation prior to migration or
expatriate is a mitigating factor for developing homesickness? (2) Are there differences between sponsored
migrants (expatriates) and self-made migrants (migrant workers)? (3) How do different groups of migrants cope
with homesickness? Nationality was not a selection criterion and is not used as a critical variable in the analysis.
The participants originated from East Africa, Britain, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia. The expatriates worked for
large and small multinationals operating in London, United Kingdom. The migrant workers all came
independently to work in the UK from various countries. The critical sample selection criterion was a time variable
that required the participant to have lived and worked in the UK or another foreign country for a minimum of three
years and competence in English language since the interviews were to be conducted in the medium of English.
Three years was thought to be adequate time during which the expatriate or migrant worker would have settled
through the development of strategies to cope with homesickness.
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Participants were contacted using snowball sampling. The sample comprised 45 participants, 15 company
expatriates and 30 migrant workers. Two migrant workers and an expatriate initially contacted led the researcher to
others. The contacts obtained via the original interviewees were often from the participants’ immediate networks,
e.g., company or community organisations, making the process of finding participants less laborious. The purpose
for selecting expatriates and migrant workers was to contrast their experiences in the host country and examine
differences and similarities among groups that entered international labour migratory movements via two distinct
routes.
The unstructured interviews explored themes such as reasons for relocating, pre-departure preparation, initial
encounter with the host country, issues with settlement, family and missing home. Questions on homesickness
required participants to talk about their experience and feeling in the early period of arrival, e.g., whether they
missed home, felt culture shock, lonely. They were also required to speak about the duration of such issues and
how they overcame. Most expatriates and the migrants spoke openly about their experiences of living abroad and
the research was able to probe their narratives in order to gain more insights into the participants’ coverage of key
discussion themes. The study covers a period of two years. Initial interviews took place in early 2009, with follow
up contact with the participant a year later to establish the degree to which participants have overcome issues and
the strategies used in the process.
4. Results
The participants interviewed described themselves as having felt homesick at some during the expatriation
process. For some, the condition started its developments right at the point of departure from the home country. For
the vast majority, the expression of homesickness actually developed on arrival in the host environments.
However, there is a split as to when the illness developed. Among the migrant workers, 26 experienced
homesickness in the first three weeks following arrival. Others felt homesick much later, about three to six months
later. Among the expatriates, the picture bears similarities though with some variations. One expatriate expressed
that feeling of homesickness appears before departure and 14participants acknowledged symptoms only after three
months. Among the latter, two expatriates felt homesick only a year after starting the overseas assignments. It was
evident that all migrants and expatriates displayed symptoms of homesickness and developed the condition
regardless of mitigating factors such as previous experience of migration, the presence of the family and basic
language knowledge. These variables were used to assess the degree to which there could be mitigating factors to
homesickness.
4.1 Homesickness in Expatriates and Migrants: Causal Explanations
A plethora of factors in combination lead to the sense of dislocation and subsequent development of homesickness
in migrant workers and expatriates. In general the study has revealed that it is always a combination of factors that
causes the condition. However, a multiple combination of those is likely to aggravate the disease and cause the
affected workers condition to deteriorate over time. This section highlights some of the most common causes
described by the participants.
4.1.1 Crossing the Boundaries of Fortress Cultures
Penetrating different cultures is not effortless. Countless studies (Deresky, 2010; Hack-Polay, 2008; Hofstede,
1991; Lin, 1986) described the hitches associated with the process. The process of penetrating new cultural
contexts particularly becomes more painful the more distant the cultures are. In the case of the migrant workers in
the study, all came from relatively countries outside of Western Europe, with the African respondents having
cultures that have more dissimilarity with western cultures. The predominantly collectivist cultures in this part of
the world has proved incompatible with the individualist western cultures. Even the Eastern European participants
from less collectivist cultures did not escape the feeling of incompatibility of cultures with the western host
country. Collectivism meant that the migrants expected a more welcome in the host country, both in society and in
the workplace. However, they argue that they were greeted with a “cold welcome” which was far from being one in
their home cultures. Over half of the migrant workers felt this. The expression used by a migrant teacher indicates
how migrant workers might develop apathy for the host country and a feeling of homesickness:
“Here no-one says hello to you. Even when you are first to do so, you may not get an answer. When I started work,
it wasn’t much different in the workplace. Colleagues would gather and eat while I sat in my corner. I felt
unwanted and desired to go home”.
Nine expatriates expressed frustrations about the new work environment while expatriates described the office
culture as “fortress culture” where everyone seemed too busy to devote time to welcome newcomers and make
them feel at home. The nine expatriates were particularly frustrated at the fact that they could not find their way
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around the office easily and felt “stupid” sometimes and missed the home country. Though a significant number of
expatriates did not express similar views, the experiences of the nine exemplify issues of integration that could
trigger a sense of missing home country cultures and practices and therefore increase the feeling of the superiority
of home over away, and an Asian expatriate translated the frustrations in those terms:
“In headquarters, I knew where things were and I knew people. We are supposed to work as a team but the team
doesn’t work. There’s a ‘gang’ of unhelpful colleagues who chat and gossip between themselves. They know
everything about you but you know nothing about them.”
This analysis is further supported by the fact that all expatriates contended that there was something either in the
organisational cultures or the societal cultures that led them to feel like not being at home or in an environment
culturally close to home.
4.1.2 Fear
Fear was exemplified at several levels. Fear of the demands of the need to bridge the cultural gap and integrate has
already been elucidated. However, fear that caused a feeling of missing home could be noticed in other areas. Fear
of doing the wrong thing both within the workplace and society, fear of the (in)ability to adapt to new technology,
fear of opacity of legal frameworks in some contexts, fear of the pace of life, fear for safety, etc. were other
dimensions of the feeling of insecurity that surround the migrants and expatriates. The African migrants mostly
originated from urban centres. The newness of everything, the people, economic and social systems, the
architecture, transport system and even the food was very overwhelming for the migrant workers. Fear was about
the use of banking services, road traffic, computers, heating and cooking systems. Many had the fear of doing the
wrong thing which might lead to their being hurt or breaking the law or causing other damage. However, the fear of
the human beings in the new social context was paramount for a large majority. An eastern European migrant
contented:
“I was very scared because this wasn’t home. My fears were exacerbated by negative stories I heard about attacks
on migrants. I prayed for my safety.”
The fear of people and authorities in the receiving country was widely shared by the participants. After a laborious
journey, braving much psychological disruptions linked to separation and risk taking in terms of the new venture,
to see these fears become reality was not an option to evoke for fear that it might bring bad luck. Nineteen migrant
workers and 11 expatriates argued that fear was already in shaping before the journey began, with some reporting
“tummy rumbling and fast heart beats”. Kofman & Sales (1992) argue that within the boundaries of a “Fortress
Europe”, those aspiring for safety can fear being rejected and returned to danger. This stage represents a significant
step for many migrant workers and expatriates because those with less fear and more strategies to combat fear have
an increased chance of successful integration. Removing fear helps combat the “terrifying” perception that distant
cultures and realities are necessarily alien, therefore potentially harmful and helped the foreign workers draw
similarities with home.
4.1.3 Language
Awareness of the language of the host country was felt to be of critical importance. Both groups of migrant
workers and expatriates acknowledge this probably in the same powerful way as expressed by Freire (1970) who
argues that “to exist humanly is to name the world, to change it” and this is possible through language acquisition.
Freire connects language acquisition with the effective search and appropriation of economic opportunities.
Language is a primary source of socialisation and studies by Marshall (1992) found that language is a significant
barrier faced by migrants in a host society. In the context of this research, two thirds of migrant workers felt that
the lack of language competence was a key issue that reminded them about home and the “good life” they had. An
Eastern European factory worker likened the lack of language skills to “deafness, blindness and deafness”. This
translates the social disability caused to migrants and expatriates by the lack of language competence. The
metaphors express the frustrations of not being able to speak for self and communicate with the host country
nationals (HCNs) and in the wider society.
The lack of language skills among migrant workers, in the early period following the arrival in the host country,
impairs to large extent access to advice, information and guidance and social activities (Hack-Polay, 2008). While
the language issue was significant for migrant workers both in the workplace and society, it affected expatriate
workers mostly outside work. However, that did not necessarily remove the frustrations of the incapacity to melt in
the new social context and learn more, thus, increasing the sense of dislocation of being out of place and therefore
re-inactivating the strong feeling for home. This was expressed by a migrant in these terms:
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“Back home, I knew very little English. When I arrived here, I felt ashamed at not being able to communicate
with people and understand them”.
Migrant workers and expatriates who spoke a second language or a plurality of languages had an advantage.
Multilingualism made it easier to build initial relationships with people and peers from a variety of backgrounds
and nationalities. This helped them to combat social isolation and some psychological pressure born from
separation and loss. The experiences of the migrant workers and expatriates demonstrated that language is critical
survival tool in a new culture and society.
4.1.4 Dimensions of the New Position
Increased responsibilities, unfamiliarity with the context and the magnitude of coordination issues were
highlighted by half of the expatriates as critical factors that led them to miss home and develop thoughts of wanting
to return. There was a question of whether the pre-departure training and visits undertaken actually achieved the
aim, which was to smooth the transition between home and away. Pre-departure training is often credited with
some degree of success (Briscoe, Schuler & Claus, 2009; Dowling & Welch, 2008) and this was exemplified in the
experiences of the participants. Expatriates, with the exception of one who has several years of experience in
multiple locations, have underscored the overwhelming sense being lost in the new job. The expatriates estimated
that while the preparations were important, these did not always emphasise the job element in terms of the new
employee getting a chance to practise and to experience for a meaningful length of time the realities and issues
associated with the new position. Images of home keep coming back to the mind due to these difficulties, but this is
further evident when there is scarcity of support as in the case of a quarter of expatriates who argued that they
receive little support from both the subsidiary and headquarters.
Migrant workers were less concerned about the immensity of the tasks involved in the new job in the host country.
The major issue for two-thirds of participants was about demonstrating that they had skills and could mix well with
locals. Migrant workers were further concerned about not gaining permanent positions and therefore having to
either seek other opportunities or return home. For those migrants whose country of origin presented less
employment opportunities, this was not a desirable option; that increased the sense of fear, a factor impacting on
their emotions.
4.2 The Grieving Process and Homesickness
Becoming a migrant or expatriate causes a sense of loss and grief. When most participants were alone, they felt
more deeply the loss in terms of family, friends and environmental familiarity. They grieved for country as a
geographical space, and sociocultural and linguistic entity that signified belongingness. An eastern European
migrant’s expression sums up the feeling of many of the participants:
“I feel sad for leaving my parents back home. I always think about them and the good time. I go to see them from
time to time and phone them. But this is not the same as being with them regularly”.
Grieving for such a colossal loss was commonly expressed through tears and the body language that encompassed
head shaking, isolating oneself in the room, restlessness and miserable attitude. All migrant workers and
expatriates acknowledged going through this process, despite the apparent joy having the opportunity to further
their professional experience and, in the case of migrant workers, to send remittances to relatives back home. The
similarity in the experiences of the migrant workers and expatriates is not an isolated finding. Other studies found
some consistency in the experience and behaviour of displaced people, e.g., Lin, 1986; Williams & Westermeyer,
1986. An African migrant described the “coldness” of the host country, not just in terms of the cold weather of
November when he arrived in the United Kingdom. During the interview the migrant persistently referred to the
loneliness on arrival, the emptiness and the lack of social warmth. Grief for the “lost” homeland or the “lost”
paradise is unmistakably high particularly in the first hours and days of arrival. In later stages, the migrant try to get
on with their professional lives. Time and the building of new networks shorten the grieving process.
4.3 Symptoms and Consequences of Homesickness
The symptoms of homesickness among the migrant workers and expatriates could be observed at many levels and
took different forms. Some were purely psychological but others were physiological. Though the detailed
symptoms were different from one individual to another, broad similarities were reported by the participants.
Constant changes in moods were common among expatriates and migrants. A significant majority reported that in
the early period following arrival, they were unsettled possibly due to disorientation and fear. The anxiety led three
quarters of the participants to shift from excitement to a feeling of unhappiness. Frowning, teeth grinding, not
finding a personal space and occasionally being unfriendly denoted more often the mental state of the worker. At
times, the expatriate or migrant worker realised that there was something wrong in their own behaviour but could
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do nothing about and found room to blame others for the psychological state in which they were. Phone calls to the
headquarters were inappropriately rude before the expatriate apologised. The migrant workers also reported that
sometimes, they did not feel like phoning home. When they did because they missed relatives, the slightest
reminder of the “overdue remittance” greatly irritated them. Though only a fifth, some participants reported
sobbing in the office or more discreetly in the loo or in their apartment. The stage was an exemplification of
Fischer’s (1989) reduced personal control model during which the migrant feels helpless before a number of
situations. An expatriate said:
“Sometimes, I became irritated with no reason. Some of my colleagues’ behaviour, sometimes normal, was
found unacceptable and offensive. I went out of the office, to the toilet and outside for fresh air. It was unsettling
and I was withdrawn”
The lack of interest was characterised by participants’ lack of response to normal demands of the body and
refusing food. Some participants, particularly among migrant workers, reported not eating for a day or two and
having very unbalanced diets for many weeks after arrival. This led to unusual loss of weight and ill physiological
conditions. Five respondents reported constipations, three claimed to have had constant headaches and a larger
proportions, one third of participants, thought they felt weak. Many, both migrants and expatriates, experienced a
general sense of feeling unwell without necessarily being able to describe what was wrong. Some participants
refused basic socialising that may assist them in removing the sense of isolation and the constant reminders of the
absence of home. An Eastern European migrant commented that being alone helped to connect with past realities
but it was equally harmful because the mind was consistently back home and the migrant was spiritually absent
from the host country. This transition exemplifies Fischer’s (1989) conflict model in which the authors sees
antagonistic and conflicting forces at work within the individual’s psyche.
Migrant workers and expatriates alike went through this experience. Migrant workers particularly felt that there
was a lot to take in. Work systems, technologies and reporting lines were entirely different in the country of origin.
These, combined with the psychological effects of separation, became a situation that the participants were uneasy
about but had no control over. This impacted on their performance in the early days of taking up the new positions.
A migrant added that sometimes he might be chatting with friends and being lost in the discussions. He also
acknowledged making several mistakes at work, which caused concerns to the managers. In fact the respondent
admitted that on several occasions, he used the wrong packaging for particular products. These errors caused
delays in processing customer orders and a sizeable amount of complaints. Managers referred him to the human
resource department that provided advice and counselling to help the transition. However, such errors were fatal
for one migrant worker who was returned home before finding work in Britain. Eight of the fifteen expatriate
equally experienced the lack of focus and concentration and this lasted weeks but the situation tended to improve
over time. Here, it could be spoken of Interruption and discontinuity model within Fischer’s (1989) homesickness
framework.
In total, homesickness caused psychological and social disruption in migrant workers and expatriates. The
participants were affected physiologically, leading to some more accepted forms of physical illness. The gravity of
the homesickness and its effects were more pronounced among migrant workers perhaps because they received
less preparation before migrating but equally because of the fear of having no jobs to return to unlike expatriates.
The next section examines coping or mitigating mechanisms.
4.4 Bridging the Gap between Home and Away
The following paragraphs examine in more details the mitigating factors in dealing with homesickness. The
migrant workers and expatriates interviewed had different responses to the evolving symptoms of the disease and
developed a variety of coping mechanisms. However, other factors such as the role of third party, e.g., employers,
were significant. Usually, these when combined with personal coping strategies were rendered more effective. The
major mitigating factors in the fight against homesickness can be categorised in four main groups: social paradigm,
the educational paradigm, the personal paradigm and the medical paradigm.
4.4.1 Social Paradigm
This is made up of strategies linked with the utilisation of social networks. A fifth of participants argued that
contacts with different people, including locals and expatriates from own and other countries were extremely
productive in maintaining a certain psychological balance. A larger proportion of both migrant workers and
expatriates acknowledged that contacts with strangers were not helpful in the initial period after relocation as the
majority was in search for a personal space that would encourage the organisation of thoughts and make sense of
the new realities. For this latter group, such self-imposed isolation became counter-productive and later contacts
with the “outside” social world became instrumental in the healing process.
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Most beneficial ingredients for respondents in the social paradigm include the discovery and integration with
community organisations and expatriate associations. All the migrants workers felt that being able to meet people
from their own community, socialise, speak the language, attend cultural events and have access to native cuisine
were critical healing and success factors. The choice of the place of residence in the host country for migrant
workers is fundamentally determined by the concentration of people from the same ethnic backgrounds. The sense
of solidarity helps migrants make sense of life in the new environment. Further evidence the healing powers of the
social paradigm lies in the highly ranked role of the family by expatriates. A third of the fifteen expatriates had
come with their spouse and children. With the nuclear family being present, the expatriate had little to be deeply
concerned about back home; to some extent, home seems to have moved with the expatriate. Though this category
displayed the symptoms of homesickness, these were less pronounced than in those who did not relocate with the
family. Most participants who regularly kept in touch with family and friends in the home country (12
participants), the feeling of missing home was less intensive than among those who did not telephone, write to or
visit friends and relatives at regular intervals. The social model is summarised in table 1.
Social
Paradigm
Main strategies within paradigm Outcome
Use of social networks
Integrate community or expatriate groups
Increased contacts with friends and family
Use of the nuclear family
Cultural exploration and discovery
Psychological balance
Ability to rapidly make
sense of host realities
Table 1. Social paradigm and intended outcomes
4.4.2 Educational Paradigm
This paradigm includes coordinated assistance by the MNC, e.g., pre-departure training and briefing sessions, a
least a country visit and chat with previous expatriates from the same company. A large number of the expatriates
asserted that pre-departure preparation provided a crucial overview of the host country, geographical orientation,
the dimensions of the new positions and expected issues. At least two thirds of expatriates supported this view and
within this proportion half agreed that the testimonies of returnees were important in establishing a picture of the
destination. Among first-time expatriates, half of the sample, as part of the pre-departure training four had overlap
experience. Overlap is pre-assignment preparation that involves the new expatriate working alongside the
outgoing member of staff to develop a realistic idea of what is involved in the work. All new expatriates that went
through this process were unanimous about the benefits of overlaps.
A key aspect of the training provided to the expatriates before the assignment was cross-cultural management. All
the expatriates that received some form of training acknowledged that it was extremely important and “eye
opening”. The view was shared by both experienced and first-time expatriates. Such positive feeling is translated
by the statement of a first time expatriate for an operational management position who sees the richness of
pre-departure preparation. Migrant workers in general did not benefit from such coordinated assistance and
showed more signs of dislocation and homesickness. Their experience is similar to expatriates who had little or no
preparation. In fact, for these participants, the more dislocated their felt, the more they missed home and presented
the symptoms of homesickness. This argument is further vindicated by the experiences of migrants who took
formal courses in the UK; these migrants benefited in terms of language acquisition, cultural awareness and
socialisation as they had more opportunities to meet host country nationals and experience real life interactions but
critically such migrants developed skills that made them more professionally mobile. Table 2 illustrates the
educational paradigm.
The centrality of the educational paradigm lies in its capacity to raise awareness and be psychologically prepared
to a certain degree. Such awareness means that the displaced persons could think of contingencies. The educational
paradigm removes to a certain degree the sense of dislocation which is a causal factor of homesickness and the
perilous circumstances displaced persons experiences.
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Educational
Paradigm
Main strategies within paradigm Outcome
Coordinated assistance by MNCs
Pre-departure training, preparation
Returnee testimonies and input
Overlap
Education attendance in host country
Reduced sense of
dislocation
Preparedness of
expatriate or migrant worker
Formulation of personal
plan prior to departure
Table 2. The educational paradigm and intended outcomes
4.4.3 Personal Paradigm
The personal paradigm comprises of three key strategies: personal willingness and drive to maintain local and
distant connections, Self-directed cultural learning and the Use of previous migration experience. The first strategy
involved the expatriate or migrant worker doing all it takes to keep in touch with relatives and friends back home.
This is usually through letters, electronic mail, telephone calls or visits back home. A female expatriate described
her experience of using this strategy:
The atmosphere in Indonesia was great. But I felt lonely because my boyfriend could not come as we weren’t
married. To feel better I wrote 10 letters in 3 days and received equal numbers within 2 weeks; I kept reading,
which kept me going.
The second strategy within the Personal paradigm is Self-directed cultural learning. This is summarised in table 3.
Using this strategy, the migrant or expatriate, consciously or unconsciously, constructs a programme of learning
aimed at decreasing the effect of homesickness. This involves the participant developing keen interest and
willingness to learn about cultures and practices in the host country. Some expatriates clarified that they
established regular patterns of television sessions where they would watch particularly programmes on local TV
stations; others bought several books explaining local cultures and signposting newcomers to religious or
traditional festivals and things of interest to tourists. Self-directed cultural learning also applied in the workplace.
The Personal Paradigm proved effective because the subject of homesickness was at the centre of the search for
remedy and was driving the healing process. Such a conclusion was further evident in the experiences of migrants
or expatriates who had worked or lived abroad before. Although the environment was different, they tended to dig
hard into past migration to inform current life. These participants showed a superior capacity to adapt than those
who were first time migrants or expatriates. Migrant who have worked in another country mirrored this.
Personal
Paradigm
Main strategies within paradigm Outcome
Drive to maintain contact at home
Willingness to build contacts with host
country nationals (HCNs)
Self-directed cultural learning
Use of previous migrant/expatriate
experience
Social tourism
Cultural immersion
Sense of self-worth
Development of temporary
social networks
Cultural exploration and
discovery
Table 3. The personal paradigm and intended outcomes
4.4.4 Medical Paradigm
The Medical Paradigm was the least used – only five of the 45 participants - but remained an avenue for a minority
of participants. It is worth exploring given its impact on those participants’ lives. The strategies within the medical
paradigm involved the absorption of medicines and drugs. The sufferers of homesickness took tablets literally
every day for the slightest pain, headache, stomach-ache and fatigue. One respondent acknowledged taking tablets
when he felt very tired claiming that it relaxed him. Others took sleeping tablets to beat the constant thoughts about
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home that stopped them sleeping well. The Medical Paradigm had a degree of effectiveness but presented strong
drawbacks. An expatriate who relied heavily on this paradigm pointed out some drawbacks:
“In the beginning taking tablets was fine. I become drowsy and sleep a bit. But when I wake up and ‘regain
consciousness’ the thought of home was still there, sometimes even more virulent. I ended up losing more by not
socialising with local people”.
The medical paradigm is illustrated in table 4.
Medical
Paradigm
Main strategies within paradigm Outcome
Consumption of drugs
Consumption of alcohol
Temporal removal of
homesickness
Less social networks and
societal assistance
Addiction to drugs or alcohol
Reduced personal control
Table 4. The medical paradigm and intended outcomes
5. Conclusions and Discussion
The paper has shown that homesickness is a critical issue for displaced people. This could affect expatriates and
multinational organisations to a large extent. Evidence (Deresky, 2010) suggests that it is a serious issue with
potentially damaging impacts if it is not remedied. Homesickness is a condition that many psychologists see as an
illness (Fisher, 1989; Van Tilburg et al., 1996), with important manifestations that have bearings on performance.
For example, the displaced person could be irritable, sad, uncooperative and lacking initiative and drive. In
business, the discourse of successful expatriate assignment must incorporate issues of homesickness which can
lead to lower performance. The legitimacy of such a conclusion lies in the fact that migrant workers and expatriates
in this research made significant reference to the term “home” and feelings of missing home. The impact of
homesickness on expatriate performance should therefore not be overlooked. Further research is needed to
establish the weight of homesickness in expatriate failure. This means attempting to establish whether an employee
posted overseas who does not experience acute levels of homesickness generates better performance and return on
investment. Homesickness could be a critical factor affecting adaptation and adjustment and should require greater
attention than it currently receives. Expatriation is significant corporate investment whose high cost has been
consistently argued. It is imperative to take every little step to safeguard such crucial investment.
Van Tilburg et al., (1996, p.909) argue that “the possibilities of interventions appear to be limited”. Some realistic
modes of interventions centre on the “stress management” approach (Fisher, 1989). It is designed to help the
affected people to accept the feeling of homesickness, be involved in the new environment, do physical activities
(sports, games, visits), eat and sleep well, go onto training programmes (Van Tilburg et al., 1996). In discussing
culture shock, a concept related to homesickness, Selmer (1999) argues that there is no way to prevent it.
Preventive solutions for homesickness are equally in short supply. Attempts can, however, be made to reduce the
impact of homesickness on expatriates and organisations; such attempts are deeply rooted in the ability of
organisations to ensure adequate expatriate preparation before departure and during the assignment. Deresky
(2010) emphasises the importance of preparation and training, arguing that such activities reduce culture shock,
disorientation and anxiety. Preparation should largely be concerned with informing the expatriate about the
circumstances in the host country and the potential for social and psychological isolation for some time before
acquaintance with the new environment. This process is normal and requires time and personal or family effort for
a positive and gradual adjustment. Important family problems could result from homesickness; members could
turn against each other and this could lead, on occasions, to the disintegration of the family and a large number of
people do not pass this stage, causing the expatriate to return earlier. As part of prevention, expatriate packs could
include plans for frequent return visits back home. Although this may add to the overall cost of the expatriate
assignment, it will still remain more economical than failed expatriation.
Finally, reducing homesickness could take into account an attempt to rebuild a socio-cultural network, however
artificial it may be. In many places several multinational companies work in juxtaposition and their staff may share
cultural norms. For instance, there could be concerted effort by MNCs to establish an expatriate network that could
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include host country nationals (HCNs). Cultural practices such as nightclubs, religious institutions, schools or
childcare facilities could be drawn in to provide a more cultural sensitive network for the expatriates. This is far
from implying that parent company nationals (PCNs) and third country nationals (TCNs) should cut themselves
off the host society. On the contrary they learn from each other’s adjustment difficulties and successes at the same
time as combating somehow the effects of homesickness.
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