The rediscovery of peer-to-peer expat support
Recently I’ve come across a number of articles heralding peer-to-peer support as a new concept in the management of global talent mobility.
The articles suggest the challenges of relocating and settling abroad, from administrative and official tasks through to cultural differences and establishing a new social network and friends, can be significantly reduced through peer-to-peer support with expats who have been through similar experiences.
Support can be practical (information, tips and advice), ‘dos and don’ts’ based on personal insight, even work related such as business etiquette.
Just as important are the social contacts that can help employees and their families adjust to their new life. Getting to know new people who have been in a similar situation, building relationships, making new friends and integrating into the local language and culture. Thereby making the most of their time abroad.
These articles also try to make the business case link to the employers of mobile, global talent. Enabling peer-to-peer networks would remove pressure on company HR departments, be a low-cost solution to standard relocation services, allow personalised and individual solutions compared to across-the-board benefits that not every expat may want, and empowers the expats to take decisions themselves based upon the information they receive.
As some of you reading this will know, I am the Chair of the Board of a Foundation (ACCESS) that supports people and their families settling into The Netherlands. We are moving into our 34th year and our unique selling point (compared to commercial organisations that also exist, and that we are not-for-profit and provide our information for free) is that we are a volunteer organisation composed of internationals (usually from over 40 countries) that offer peer-to-peer support.
So not such a new concept after all!
According to Wikipedia, peer support occurs when people (often trained) provide knowledge, experience, emotional, social or practical help to each other. A peer is a person who is in fundamentally similar situation and so can relate to the recipient, giving support by having ‘been there, done that’. Peer support is especially prevalent in dealing with common illnesses or health conditions where people exchange experience & advice and support each. Examples are: addiction/substance abuse (Alcoholics Anonymous started in 1935); chronic illness/disabilities; trauma/veterans/PTSD; mental health/anxiety/depression.
Peer-to-peer support doesn’t just sound sensible but its effectiveness is based on a number of well-researched psychological processes. These include:
-Social support: positive relationships with others with whom there is mutual trust & concern contribute to positive adjustment & resistance to stress and adversity. Such social support can be: emotional (esteem, attachment, reassurance, empathy); informational (advice, guidance, feedback); companionship; instrumental (material goods/services)
– Social comparison and Social learning theory: individuals are more comfortable interacting with others who share common characteristics and peers are more credible if they have undergone relevant similar experiences
-Helper-therapy principle: there are many benefits for those that provide peer support, including increased sense of interpersonal competence by making an impact on other people’s lives, social approval, sense of belonging, sense of equality
-Experiential knowledge: specialized information & perspectives obtained living through a particular experience (and kept up-to-date through giving peer support)
-Self-determination: individuals who can determine own future are more liable to act on their own decisions rather than decisions made for them
It is interesting re-reading the community needs assessment made in The Hague in 1986 that led to the creation of the ACCESS Foundation in the first place. The peer-to-peer support by trained volunteers is the basis.
Although recognizing that the Netherlands was relatively benign, it listed 5 sources of stress: ‘predictable’ problems (e.g. relational/mental issues that might have happened anyway, but would affect people more because of the lack of familiar support systems e.g. professional counselling in English); adjustment issues (the stress involved with any move; isolation; that the Netherlands seems on the surface the same but isn’t); employment issues (or lack of them; the inability of partners being able to work and self-worth); alcohol abuse amongst teens & security/terrorism. (The last two are an interesting take on the expat view of Dutch society in the mid-1980s and ones I wouldn’t have included).
Their 5 recommendations we follow to this day:
- Establish a resource base of English speaking mental health professionals (counselling remains one of the strands of DNA for ACCESS)
- Establish a telephone information line staffed by trained volunteers with a regular updated data bank offering all sorts of practical info (we still have this, although obviously the website, magazine, e-mail helpline and our desks in municipality expat centres are other ways of peer-to-peer transfer of information; but training of all of our volunteers remains extremely important)
- Develop/offer professional level orientation programmes
- Develop/offer programmes of lifelong learning (we have a network of trainers emphasising lifelong learning)
- Catalyse/co-ordinate community resources
What was of course missing from this list, to return to the ‘helper-therapy principle’ mentioned above, is the positive effect on our peer volunteers themselves. And as we are living in the real-world of the 2020’s it is not only the personal satisfaction and well-being but the often heard issues of partners who might be forced to put their career on hold. However our 50% turnover rate per year is not necessarily due to volunteers repatriating out of the Netherlands but because so many of them find paid employment with the skills they have developed.
34 years on though, it is good to know that our raison d’être of peer-to-peer expat support is still the newest concept in global talent mobility!