Smart moves: Why travel can be bad for you

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The Independent Online
MANAGERS ON international assignments often suffer from anxiety and impaired work performance as a result of culture shock, according to research by Norman Broadbent International (NMI), an executive search firm, and the centre for International Briefing.

Elisabeth Marx, a director of NBI and author of the study, believes that the symptoms can be alleviated substantially if sufferers are better able to recognise the signs of culture shock and take appropriate action.

Among the strategies that respondents claim to use when dealing with culture shock are active problem solving, seeking support from other expatriates, colleagues or family members and keeping a positive outlook.

The research suggests that managers who experience shorter periods of culture shock appear to take greater advantage of social support from friends, colleagues and family than those who take longer to adjust. And the longer managers suffer from culture shock the greater their feelings of helplessness and the worse their performance.

The research has also discovered that the most frequent symptoms of culture shock are feelings of isolation, anxiety, worry, a drop in performance at work and helplessness. Most managers experience several of the symptoms simultaneously.

In addition, it is suggested that symptoms last on average forseven weeks, with some people feeling the effects for as little as five weeks and others suffering for more than four months. Nearly half of the 73 international managers on assignment that were interviewed experienced culture shock within the first six months of their posting - despite receiving "cross-cultural training" from the Centre for International Briefing. The centre, based in Farnham, Surrey, provides briefings for expatriates, business travellers and home-based managers with international responsibilities dealing with more than 150 countries. It also provides intensive language tuition and repatriation programmes designed to help international managers deal with the often unexpected challenge of returning home, known as "reverse culture shock".

Dr Marx, whose book on the subject, Breaking through Culture Shock, is due to be published in the new year, said: "Experiencing culture shock is part of a normal process of adapting to an international assignment. It can be debilitating, but minimising culture shock is not difficult if the right steps are taken."

She recommends several ways to deal with the problem:

t Take heart and think about the positive aspects of culture shock; people who experience it adapt better to their new environment than those who do not.

t Do not let culture shock catch you by surprise. Take time to find out about it before you leave for your assignment. Learn to recognise the symptoms.

t Expect culture shock to happen irrespective of location. It is as likely to occur in Europe as in the Far East.

t As soon as you arrive in your new posting, identify all opportunities for building up support networks with other international managers and with local people, through clubs and events.

t Give yourself time to adapt. Make sure that the organisation gives you this time too.

t Do not hesitate to seek help from counsellors or doctors, within your company or externally, if symptoms persist despite your best efforts to cope.