Companies recognize that accompanying spouses are playing an essential role in the success of international assignments.
Research shows that they’re key to absorb the stress of both the expatriate employee and the children.
Organizations acknowledge that they increase their partner’s work performance when they adapt successfully.*
Indeed, it’s hard work to:
- manage the practicalities of an international move
- support kids and a working partner to settle in a new country
- often assume dual roles (father and mother) because of frequent travelling and long business hours of the other half
and when everything is fine… repeat all the above in another country!
Add to that, the loss of one’s professional identity, financial independence and close support network combined with culture shock!
This creates a very heavy burden for the trailing spouses to bear.
However, they have got no salary slip, no business card, no sponsored visa. They don’t appear in the balance sheet, employees count or suppliers’ list.
Accompanying spouses are illegal workers.
But they enjoy a great life, you might say. They get to visit amazing places, they learn new languages and discover new cultures, they live in beautiful villas.
If they’re lucky, they even get a chauffeur, a maid, a nanny and a cook!
Well, first, this is not always the case. And second, even if it’s the case, does it make you truly happy?
Money can’t buy happiness…
Yes, and this is key because “the happiness of the spouse contributes to the success of an international assignment.”*
“Happy wife, happy life” as the saying goes. Click to tweet
Let’s have a closer look at this notion of happiness.
According to Robert Edwards Lane who studied “the loss of happiness in market democracies” and Michael Argyle in his “Psychology of Happiness”, there are 3 elements which contribute to your level of happiness once your basic needs (food, clothing, shelter) are covered:
1. Closeness to nature
2. Social interactions
3. Meaningful work
In the case of the accompanying spouse, we can say that at least the last 2 requirements are not easily fulfilled.
Social interactions are governed by… mastering the art of effective communication, which is one of the 3 pillars of culture shock!
Effective communication requires not only feeling comfortable speaking the local language or deciphering the body language and knowing the local etiquette.
It also means finding the right place to meet the right people.
Creating a social network is not straightforward. It requires time, effort and a good dose of self-confidence.
As to performing meaningful work, in some countries you’re not even allowed to work. And if you are (allowed to work), the task to find a job at your level of qualification without any connection in the local market is daunting.
Sure, you can derive meaning from volunteering or studying. That’s what I’m doing right now.
But there is a subtle difference: in the former case you’re paid to work while in the latter you have to pay.
And this is where reality kicks in.
How do you manage to take care of yourself when you don’t earn a penny?
How do you follow a course, get some extra support, start a new company, open a bank account on your name, apply for a credit card, join a professional network?
Oh well, you might have earned the greatest moral recognition from your community, the local school or the nearby NGO. Your partner’s company can praise you for your adaptive skills and your smooth integration.
Sure, moral recognition is better than nothing… But it doesn’t help.
To follow a course, start a new company, open a bank account, join a professional network, you need.. some money!
… but money certainly lets you choose your own form of misery” (Groucho Marx)
This is why I propose the creation of a spouse stipend.
This is how it would work.
The spouse stipend is a fraction of the expat assignee salary, directly paid to the accompanying spouse. The percentage is defined by each company. As a guideline, I would suggest between 10 and 25% of the total salary. This money is spent freely by the spouse for whatever she pleases.**
She might choose to use it for enrolling in a painting class, joining some networking activities, or enjoying a massage.
Why a spouse stipend?
All international HR departments already have an expat policy, usually paying for language courses and/or studies for the accompanying spouse. Advocating for a spouse stipend won’t increase the revenue of the whole family, why adding more paperwork then?
- Because each quest for happiness is unique.
Everybody has different needs and different ways of learning.
While you might feel the urge to take a language course, some other fellow accompanying spouses may prefer to join a choir to fulfill their need for social interaction and meaningful work. But the choir membership is $50 for 6 months. Is this taken into account in the expat policy?
A young mom could derive much more pleasure and meaning by following swimming lessons with her baby, allowing her to network with local mothers. A stay-at-home dad might prefer to join the local soccer club and take this opportunity to improve his knowledge of the local customs (and language), rather than follow private lessons with an accredited tutor.
And what if you don’t need language courses? If you already speak the language? If you already have 4 Masters, 2 Ph.D’s, 3 post-docs?
- Because having to ask for something can be humiliating
Depending on your culture, having to justify and to ask the company for the payment of an extra-professional activity can be perceived as humiliating.
Let’s keep in mind that the demand for financing spousal activities has to be made by the working partner himself. Remember, the trailing spouse has no direct relation with HR. She is the illegal worker.
What if her partner is ashamed to ask or too busy in meetings, what if he doesn’t consider it as a priority or even worse dismiss the request? Can you imagine the strain put on the couple relationship?
Are you familiar with this scenario?
Richard is now earning 10 times what his own father used to make. He regards himself to be extremely well-paid and does not consider it appropriate to ask the company for another $ 4000 to finance his spouse’s studies. His wife is stuck: how can she call HR without having her husband somehow losing face?
- Because the imbalance in your couple relationship is exacerbated by the financial dependence.
Before the move
You had a job and a support network. You knew the language and the culture. You had a well-established position in society.
After the move
Suddenly, you have lost your official working status, your financial independence and your freedom: no family, no friends around. You have to be there for your children and your partner 24h/24. You have to be the mother, the father (because your husband is working long hours or travelling), the grandma, the auntie, the entertainer, the teacher, the cook, the nurse. You might not know the language and you might have to deal with severe culture shock.
If you don’t have a payslip, you can’t apply for a bank account. If you don’t have a bank account, you can’t even secure a mobile phone plan or an Internet connection on your name.
If you dare to have a hobby, you know (in case of conflicting schedule with your partner) that you’ll have to abandon it because he’s got priority: he’s earning the money.
And if you want to buy something extra for yourself, you’ll have to deal with your scruples. “Do I really deserve it? After all, I’m not earning the money…”
To what extent does this frustration poison your relationship?
But introducing a spouse stipend must be legally very difficult…
Who would today oppose women’s suffrage which was still inconceivable in most countries 100 years ago?
Could I have ever thought when I joined a multinational company in 1991 for a position located at the headquarters in Paris that 5 years later, I (and all my sales and marketing colleagues) would be requested to work from home?
Who could have imagined that flextime (variable work schedule) introduced in the UK in 1971 would bring such benefit that “Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg on 13 November 2012 announced plans to extend the right to request flexible working to all employees”?
He mentioned in the same announcement that parents (including the father!) will be able to share up to a year’s leave after the birth of a child, stating:
“In the future, both mothers and fathers will be able to take control of how they balance those precious first months with their child and their careers. Reform is long overdue and the changes we are making will shatter the perception that women have to be the primary care-givers. This is good news not only for parents and parents-to-be, but employers too who will benefit from a much more flexible and motivated workforce.”
So what are we waiting for?
As you understood by now, the spouse stipend not a question of money. It’s a question of principle, a question of balance, a question of recognition. A spouse stipend won’t get you rich. It acknowledges true teamwork: an essential component for successful expatriate life and family relationships.
Have you say! Are you for or against the spouse stipend? I can’t wait to hear from you in the comments below!* Source: “Breaking through culture shock“, Elizabeth Marx ** I’m using the feminine because most of the trailing spouses are still women but I know some men too and I certainly welcome their feedback as well! No sexism here 🙂 Credit image Wikimedia Commons, Credit music pianosociety