Re-Entry Challenges

Survey results

In August 2013, I used Survey Monkey to find out more what challenges repatriates face on returning “home.” In this article I am summarising my findings, so if you’d like more information just let me know. The first part is a general summary of responses, followed by further sections on the mission, corporate and development sectors where I see value in commenting on a few differences.


I had 79 responses, the vast majority from Mission workers (Chart 1) – I suspect this is merely a consequence of my contacts and background. Please see the appendix for the survey questions.

The greatest challenges faced by repatriates on going “home” (Chart 2) were not altogether surprising – friends (this often came with the comment that those close to them didn’t understand or want to know about their experiences), sharing the overseas experience, cultural issues (by which I am understanding mainly reverse culture shock) and future career scoring the highest.

Whilst cultural issues and future career seem obvious, sharing our experiences seems less so – though I remember being warned that this would be the case, and have experienced it that way. Those we return to often find this a strange idea – I remember having a conversation with someone saying that we had been warned that people’s eyes would glaze over, and having shunned the idea that people wouldn’t be interested, her eyes did exactly that moments later!

The number of workers who changed their career path (Chart 3) on their return home was pretty much even with those that stayed within their chosen career:

Of those who did change career, oddly enough, friends came top of the tree for helping out with the change (Chart 4). There is a large group of “other” for this chart, since there were responses such as retirement, birth of a baby, recruitment agency, stayed as mum, books, churches, not relevant.

It seems clear though from the data that a lot of returnees, whatever their sector, have very little help moving on professionally once they return.

Those that did stay in their former career path almost without exception wanted to.

What was helpful in settling back?

Funnily enough, despite “friends” being the biggest problem, “friends” were also a crucial part of the solution (Chart 5)

I’m presuming here that in the former case, we’re talking about “friends” more in a general case – people who we were friends with before we left who we had hoped would understand. In the latter it is about a few key people who really helped keep us sane. One or two people in our lives who understood, had probably lived overseas themselves, who didn’t judge or try to fix us, but who weathered the storm with us and assured us that the chaos would eventually settle. How much we need those friends!

The place of other returnees in helping us to settle is also very visible – people who understand what it is like, who know the ups and downs you go through, and yet who have succeeded in resettling to some degree more than we have yet – thereby providing hope that things can get easier.

Debriefs or retreats figured highly, whether these were short debriefs from an organisation or a week-long retreat focussed on mission workers – though noticeably, these were not mentioned on responses from anyone apart from mission workers, which begs the question – are debriefs available for those in corporate / development / aid / military roles? Or are they available but not effective?

Practical help comes up in a number of people’s comments – sorting out accommodation, helping with shopping, knowing where to find things, advice on bills, etc. One of the most helpful things someone did for us was to buy us SIM cards for our phones for when we arrived at the airport and telling us which energy suppliers to use initially!

“Time” was also a response given by a few – just understanding that it takes time, the need to take things slowly – I think that’s good advice for us all.

What would have been helpful?

Way more than any other responses were the answers: a debrief, and talking with other repatriates (Chart 6).

This shows real value placed on a good debrief (let’s face it, many of us have had experiences of bad ones…). A good debrief helps the repatriate to gain perspective on their time overseas, normalises what they have been through and are going through since coming back, and enables them to face the future taking forward the value gained from their overseas placement. More than that, there is a desire for checking back in with the returnee six months, 12 months and possibly even further down the line to see how they are getting on, remind them they’re not on they’re not on their own, and give them the possibility of processing further issues that have come up. This is where I see a value for life coaching / debriefing combined, giving returnees the opportunity for on-going support, rather than just a one-off meeting.

Many mentioned a desire for meeting with groups of other returnees to talk through experiences. Perhaps there is an opportunity here for agencies / companies to pull together regular (if only biannual) meetings of repatriates to give them the possibility of linking up in this way.

Mission Workers

Whilst I use the word “missionary” during this section, I use it reluctantly as any other alternatives seem too wordy. For ease of use, “missionary” in this article refers to someone who has gone overseas as a result of their Christian faith, but could be involved with all sorts of work: development, aid, teaching, healthcare, etc.

What strikes me more than other things is how often the challenge of “spiritual belonging” among returning mission workers came up (Chart 7).

If I single out mission workers on their own, then spiritual belonging is equal third highest category of challenge, after friends and sharing their overseas experience.This leads me to suggest a combination of the following:

  • the changes that occur in people’s faith when they are abroad make it hard to fit in when returning to their home fellowship
  • the deep relationships most folk have overseas are difficult to replace back in western culture
  • churches find it hard to understand and accommodate the returning missionaries
  • missionaries are looking for or hoping for something on their return which is not being / cannot be met

Whatever the reasons for this trend, it seems to me that there are different ways of approaching this:

  • agencies taking spiritual debriefing more seriously
  • churches or another source providing a spiritual director for returnees (though I understand that not everyone would take up such an opportunity)
  • increased and on-going pastoral care of returned missionaries by their home church

Mission workers did seem to have proportionally slightly more help in changing career once they returned, 3 respondees had advice from their church, which they followed. However, on the back of that, only 8 out of 57 responses indicated that church was really helpful in settling back (Chart 8), and faith barely figured – which is interesting in itself – what impact does having a faith of some sort have on the ability to re-settle? The results would indicate that it has very little impact.

More Mission workers expressed a desire for debriefing and/or on-going mentoring / coaching than any other sector (Chart 9). This may reflect the increasingly high profile debriefing has in the mission community. The need for cultural advisors for adults and children came over strongly too – for people to help update returnees with latest cultural norms and fashions. This is something I think churches, friends, and families are in the best position to offer, but are often unaware that this is needed.

Corporate Staff

With only 9 responses from corporate staff, it is difficult to draw conclusions. However, the following notes are worth pondering.

Their company is unable to keep them? Proportionately few corporate staff stayed in their chosen career on return from their placements (Chart 10), which raises questions – does this mean:

  • Their company is unable to keep them?
  • Their experience has led them to change and move on?
  • They are unsatisfied by what their company offers them on their return?
  • They are making total changes in career or just adjusting slightly within their company?

Of those that do change, there seems to be very little in the way of support in making decisions, only one person indicating support from a careers advisor and life coach, the others having no one to help. This is a big hole which needs filling!

For those in the corporate world, the internet, blogs, forums, social media and keeping in touch with folk from their placement are key (Chart 11), much more important than friends at home (who weren’t rated at all). Perhaps this reflects corporate staff being relocated somewhere unfamiliar, where prior contacts are not a given.

Corporate staff expressed proportionately much more strongly (6/9 compared with 12/61 in the Mission sector) how useful it would have been to talk with other repatriates on their return (Chart 12). Possibly this indicates that it is harder in the corporate world to link up with such people. Some of the possible causes of this may be: better networking opportunities between Mission organisations; the Mission community is smaller and has a sole purpose of sending people abroad and seeing them return, hence are more geared up for the transition.

No one in the corporate world mentioned the word “debrief. This surprised me somewhat – does this mean that debriefs are not common in this sector; that those that do take place are badly done or unhelpful; or that people are unaware that they are available at all? Anyone with experience in this sector – I would love to know the answer to this one!


It is somewhat difficult to comment on development workers, since the category seemed to overlap with mission to quite a degree. However, from Chart 13 it can be seen that again the sharing of the overseas experience is hugely challenging.

There was no one apart from sometimes family helping these workers change direction when returning “home”, and family was the greatest asset on returning.


The main questions raised for me as a result of this survey are:

  • Churches – how can you better support the practical, emotional and spiritual needs of returning missionaries? And who can train churches to do this?
  • Companies – what debriefing is in place, what provision can be put in place for helping returning staff with future career choices?
  • Should debriefing be written into the contract of those going overseas rather than provided as an optional extra?
  • Mission agencies and companies – what networks do you have in place of former returnees and how can you use them to support current returnees?

I feel more determined than ever to pursue my company’s vision: WattsYourPathway is the life-coaching / debriefing business of choice for organisations with personnel working overseas, providing understanding and accompaniment to repatriates during their re-entry experiences, enabling them to grow and thrive.

© Helen Watts, August 2013


Survey questions:

1. In what capacity were you overseas?
Options given: Aid, development, Mission, Military, Corporate, Disaster Relief, Other (please specify)

2. What areas of life proved to be the greatest challenge when you came back “home” ?

Options given: Cultural issues, Past experiences, Health concerns, Transferable skills, Everyday life, Work / life balance, Spiritual belonging, Friends, Extended family, Future career, Sharing experiences overseas, Schooling, Other (please specify)

3. Did you stay within your same career path when you returned?

Options given: Yes, no

4. If your answer to Q3 was no, who did you enlist to help you in changing career?

Options given: Not relevant, Friends, Family, Career advisor, Company advisors, Life Coach, Counsellor, Other (please specify)

5. If your answer to Q3 was yes, did you want to?

Options given: Yes, No

6. What was the most helpful to you as you settled back into life at “home”?

Open Question

7. What would have been helpful had it been available or if you had known about it?

Open Question

8. Do you have any other comments you can add which might be helpful to my stated aims?

Open Question