Lowering the voltage on culture shock

Foreign workers might withdraw or even become aggressive in unfamiliar cultural setting

All across Canada, and especially in Alberta’s booming oil sands, companies are looking far and wide to fill labour shortages. One solution is to bring in skilled temporary foreign workers. But starting a new job in a new country with different cultural norms can be unnerving. This can affect their productivity and desire to stay in the job. Not only is the company’s culture new and different, but so is the surrounding social structure.

All of these differences can lead to culture shock, a pronounced reaction to the psychological disorientation most people experience when they move into a new cultural environment. Culture shock is not an illness. It’s a natural occurrence in the process of adjusting to a different culture.

On one level, culture shock can look like frustration, something everyone has experienced at one time or another. However, frustration is usually traceable to a specific action and, although it may be uncomfortable, it is generally short lived. Culture shock is different. It has two quite distinctive features.

First, it does not result from a specific event. It comes from realizing behaviours, perceptions and values that one has accepted as correct are no longer valid. This can ultimately lead to a sense of confusion because the individual begins to question all of his long-held assumptions. In the workplace, differences such as attitudes toward punctuality, schedules, hierarchy, group dynamics and taking a risk loom especially large.

Second, culture shock does not have a single cause. It is cumulative. It builds up slowly from a series of small, sometimes insignificant, events that are difficult to identify. However, as time goes by, these differences become overwhelming and get blown out of proportion.

Culture shock can appear anywhere from one month after arrival (when the euphoria of the move begins to wear off) to eight months after the worker has settled into the job and it can last anywhere from a few weeks to months.

What it looks like

An employee experiencing culture shock can be in an acute state of distress and react either by withdrawing from the unpleasant work situation or becoming aggressive and striking back. Overall symptoms include anxiety, confusion, depression, fatigue and feelings of inadequacy.

Withdrawal symptoms include avoiding contact with Canadians, short attention span, diminished productivity and loss of ability to work effectively. It is at this point that people often say: “Coming here was a mistake. I’m going back home.”

Aggressive symptoms may include compulsive eating and drinking, irritability, hostility towards colleagues and verbal and physical aggressiveness

It is important to note not everyone will experience a severe case of culture shock, nor will all the symptoms be observed in any single individual. Many people will sail through culture shock with relative ease. But many others won’t, so employers must help mitigate its effects.

Educating the employer

HR personnel and managers should expect a measure of culture shock among new recruits, regard it as normal and be ready to intervene if they sense a problem developing. Employers must be proactive and sensitive to the different cultural values of the new employees.

As well, management should understand how to communicate more effectively in a cross-cultural situation. They must recognize the fact that, even though the new employee speaks English, cultural filters can easily distort the meaning of what has been said.

Making connections

Managers need to understand the important role they play in helping a new employee become an important contributor, especially during the first few months the employee is with the company.

One approach is to assign a mentor in the business operation, preferably a well-respected person from the department who can ease the integration. This is especially important when working with a new employee who has very different cultural expectations.

Employers can also help new employees immensely by supplying them with the names and contact numbers of various religious centres, organizations and even individuals who can reassure them that there are culturally familiar elements in their new environment. Connecting them with others in the workplace who have had a similar experience relocating is also beneficial.

Providing cross-cultural training programs for small groups of foreign workers can also help alleviate culture shock. Solcorp, a Toronto-based IT company with 250 employees, identified six employees who would benefit from such a program.

Solcorp held a one-day session that examined the concept of culture shock and offered strategies that could help, including taking part in local community life, participating in favourite activities such as running or biking, getting to know people from the host culture and exploring the new environment. But the most important thing it stressed was staying positive and being patient.

The participants said just knowing that culture shock is normal and that others were experiencing similar challenges was very reassuring.

As more and more foreign workers enter the Canadian workplace, cross-cultural education will become the norm. This will not only raise awareness regarding the phenomena of culture shock, but will also give managers the skills that will enable them to help these employees during their first eight months in Canada.

Zelda Fedder specializes in relocation consulting and she is the principal of Communications International. She can be reached at [email protected] or (705) 687-6496.

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