The Expatriate Work–Family Interface: A Case of Self-Efficacy

Photo by Sandy Millar on Unsplash

Expatriate experiences, and adjustment in particular, have been one of the most prominent research topics in the field of global mobility. Rightfully so, given the multitude of challenges that expatriates face, such as increased job responsibilities, excessive travel, major life changes, and dealing with cultural others. Industry surveys (e.g. Santa Fe Relocation) indicate that many expatriates relocate with their partners and children, which brings the notion of the work-family interface and boundaries into the spotlight as well. Not surprisingly, research has emphasised the critical role of both, expatriates’ family life and their partners’ adjustment, in influencing expatriates’ experiences and work-related outcomes. However, we know little about how exactly or under which circumstances expats’ family life intertwines with their work domain.

Aiming to better understand the dynamics between expats’ family life and the work domain, my colleagues and I conducted a study to examine when partner family role adjustment influences expatriates’ family experiences, and how and when these experiences translate into expatriates’ work role engagement.

We based our work upon three main theoretical concepts: crossover and spillover processes, and conservation of resources theory (COR theory). Crossover is a dyadic process that concerns the transfer of experiences between two individuals, while spillover is a within-individual process whereby values, behaviors and moods transfer between the family and the work roles for the same individual. First, in line with previous research, we hypothesise a crossover process between expatriates and their partner, which means that negative and positive experiences of one person (the expatriate’ partner in our case) can be transmitted to another person (i.e., expatriate) in the same social environment. In other words, we proposed that through a process of crossover the partner’s family role adjustment is transmitted to the expatriate, hence influencing the latter’s family role adjustment. Next, we expect that the more expatriates are adjusted to their family role the more they are engaged in it, and via a spillover process, the quality of engagement in family role transfers to expatriates’ engagement at work. To put it simply, we theorised that partner’s family role adjustment crosses over to the expatriate (crossover), who’s family role adjustment translates into family role engagement, which in turn spills over into work engagement (spillover).

Both processes, crossover and spillover, are viewed in the context of COR theory, which emphasizes the importance of various resources that expatriates have at their disposal. Specifically, in line with COR, we view the partner’s family role adjustment as a contextual resource for the expatriate, so that when the partner adjusts well, it becomes a supportive contextual resource for the expatriate’s own adjustment. Apart from contextual resources, there are important personal resources, and together they interact and compensate for one another. In our study we focused on one such key personal resource—expatriate general self-efficacy, which concerns an individual’s perceived confidence to success—and propose it to be a boundary condition for both crossover and spillover processes. In short, we conceived that expatriates’ general self-efficacy will moderate the influence of contextual resources (i.e., the partner’s family role adjustment) on their family domain experiences and will additionally determine if and in which direction family domain states spill over to their work domain.

Using data from 105 expatriate–partner dyads at two time points, we found that expatriate general self-efficacy is a salient boundary condition for both crossover and spillover at the work–family interface during expatriation. Specifically, our data suggests that expatriates with high levels of self-efficacy experience no crossover between their partner’s and their own family role adjustment, while expatriates with low levels of self-efficacy are strongly influenced by their partner’s family role adjustment. To put it simply, expatriates with high levels of self-efficacy do not seem to be substantially intertwined with their partner’s adjustment experiences, whereas expatriates with low levels of self-efficacy are, so that when their partner adjusts well (or badly), it positively (negatively) influences the expatriate’s own family role adjustment. Moreover, we found that high levels of self-efficacy help expatriates to benefit from positive spillover between their family role engagement and their work role engagement. This result is supported by the underlying theory that individuals with high general self-efficacy are more likely to apply resources generated in one role domain (i.e. family) to another role domain (i.e. work). By contrast, individuals with low self-efficacy who are engaged with one role domain are more likely to exhaust their resources, thereby leading to less engagement in the other domain. Our data supported this premise, showing that expatriates with low levels of self-efficacy suffer from negative spillover between their family role engagement and their work role engagement.   

Central to the practical implications of our study is the important role of self-efficacy in expatriates’ experiences. In simple terms, expatriates with high levels of self-efficacy depend less on contextual resources in their adjustment process, plus, they tend to benefit from spillover of positive engagement from their family domain to the work domain. Naturally, a straightforward implication for global mobility professionals would be to hire expatriates with high levels of self-efficacy, and cultivate their family role engagement, viewing it as a resource to be spilled over into work as well. Equally important is to focus on providing extra support for those with low levels of self- efficacy, therefore increasing the personal resources that may help them to compensate for contextual challenges and serve to enable and maximize the use of other resources.

In sum, our study shows that expatriates are inherently intertwined with others, especially with their family members. More generally, the COVID-19 crisis has greatly increased the need for remote work, which has further weakened the boundaries within the family unit and between work and non-work domains, thereby making crossover and spillover even more prevalent. It is important for organziations, but also for professionals more broadly, to take this binto account.

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