Beyond Onboarding: Addressing the Hazards of Relocation Stress

Companies want the best new hires and they want their employees in the right location to best serve their needs. But relocating employees comes at a cost. This cost goes far deeper than any explicit relocation package the company puts together. It is the expense that comes from the impact relocation has on employee well-being and their work performance. The research that this cost is real is extensive and very well established in academic circles. But it is subtle, hidden, and therefore is often given inadequate consideration outside of these circles. Fortunately, companies do not have to stop relocating employees; when addressed head-on with the right tools, the cost is controllable.

The phenomenon of relocation stress has been the topic of scientific study stemming back more than 50 years. This long-established history of scientific study has created a rich database of findings linking relocation to myriad of adverse reactions and conditions on par with the most stressful of life events. This article presents a brief overview of the potential consequences associated with relocation stress, the key life areas that are commonly impacted by moving, and suggestions for proactive steps HR professionals can take to minimize problems associated with relocation stress of new hires/transfers.


What is “Relocation Stress,” exactly?

“Relocation stress” is the level of strain resulting from a major life transition following a geographic move. Relocation stress can adversely impact people’s emotional, cognitive and physical well-being. Individuals may experience Relocation Stress whether they are moving long or short distances.


Stress, Strain and the Moving Process

Relocation has been found to be the second highest stressful life event that is predictive of future serious negative outcomes to health and well-being. More specifically, in terms of the seriousness and severity, scientific studies have found that relocation often creates a dramatic life change second only to death of a spouse in terms of adapting to the strain and the predictive nature of adverse health-related outcomes that often follow a move. Additionally, adjusting to a move can be a long-term process; adverse reactions to relocation stress can surface anywhere between 6 to 18 months following a move. And finally, in terms of adverse stress-related reactions, as many as one-third of all moves do not go well.



Relocation Stress as a Workplace Problem


Employers often seek out highly qualified employees from regions outside their own—and rightfully so. Unfortunately, going outside the immediate area to get the brightest people whose talents and training are the best fit with their needs can also come with a price. For employees this can mean the risk of cognitive, emotional and physical health problems brought on by relocation stress. And for employers this can mean costs by way of negative impacts on company functioning and profits. These costs—usually hidden—can include reduced employee performance due to difficulty concentrating, failure to adequately bond with colleagues and become an active team member, increased time off and sick days, increased use of health insurance, and if left unchecked and acclimation fails, increased turnover rates. When these costs are added to the search costs, including lost time of management and other key employees for choosing, interviewing and meeting about final candidates, relocation costs, training costs, and costs to overall morale of team members when they have invested time and energy in new employees only to have them leave in a relatively short time, the loss to employers can be substantial.



The risk to health and well-being: Negative effects linked with Relocation Stress

Research findings on Relocation Stress reveal that the emotional, cognitive and physical effects resulting from the stress of moving are as varied as any other type of stressful life event.

Cognitive/psychological symptoms following the stress of relocation have been reported to include depression, anxiety, difficulty focusing and concentrating, memory problems, fearfulness, frustration, irritability, hopelessness and loneliness, among others.

Physiological symptoms reported with the stress of moving have included chest pains, headaches, backaches, migraines, digestive problems, menstrual problems, changes in sleeping and/or eating habits, dental problems, insomnia, changes in weight, increased allergic reactions and asthma, vision problems, increased injuries from accidents (including children’s burn accidents), to name just a few.

Behavioral/interpersonal symptoms: Relocation stress has also been associated with a number of behavioral changes that may lead to a strain on interpersonal relationships. Reported behavioral changes have included withdrawal and social isolation, angry outbursts, argumentative behavior, crying, short temper, sexual dysfunction, increased use of alcohol or other substances, and increases in risk-taking behaviors such as speeding.


relo stress variables chart

The Solution: An Interdisciplinary Approach

Predictive dynamics: Determining who is likely to adjust and who may have problems following a move

With all the possible negative outcomes, it is a wonder anyone would ever move! Fortunately, relocation does not have to be a prescription for disaster. Ultimately, the negative outcomes resulting from relocation stress are a function of who we are, our life experiences, and our personal choices both before and after the move. Our research and the research findings of others indicate that myriad of personal, social and environmental factors help determine—and mediate—the negative effects of relocation. Once employers learn what factors trigger relocation stress, how to recognize the red flags, and what strategies and techniques to put into motion, moving can be one of the most exciting, exhilarating experiences of your employees’ lives.    The following offers an at-a-glance overview of some of the key variables shown to impact adaptation following a move.*


Personal Factors: Psychology & Relocation-Stress

– Beliefs about personal control

– Exploratory tendencies

– Self-concept and coping skills

– Level of pre-relocation attachments: Disruption of continuity / spatial identity

– Level of state of temporariness

– Level of choice surrounding the move

– Residential history

– Contextual factors (Number of times moved in previous 18 months prior to current move; time period between previous move and current move)


Social Factors: Social Life and Relocation Stress

– Status of pre-relocation social networks

– Ability to establish post-relocation social networks

– Ability to bridge old and new social support systems

– Social class mobility

– Existence of pets as social support before and after the move


Environmental Factors: The Physical Environment and Relocation Stress

– Grieving for the “lost home”

– Level of Person-Environment Fit (How good the fit is between employees and their new surroundings/micro environment/new home environs)

– Level of Macro-Environment fit (Changes in urban/suburban/rural setting; Noise level changes; Social density overload, etc.)

– Place-identity and the social meaning the new home environment holds

– Regional Culture changes



Regular assessments necessary

The key to successfully assisting new hires and transfers through the acclimation process is to regularly assess employees’ level of adaptation to the major personal, social and environmental components. This is especially important at the 3-month, 6-month and 12-month periods following the move. We have developed science-based assessment strategies, tools and techniques that are outlined step-by-step in our relocation stress-mitigation book and training programs, however with trained personnel and resources devoted to a relocation stress-mitigation program, many HR departments can develop their own assessment tools.


Time is of the essence

It is essential that relocation stress-mitigation strategies and evaluation tools are designed to effectively assist employees in mitigating the adverse effects of relocation stress already in progress. However, our work has shown that employees will oftentimes be reluctant to report problems they and/or their family members are having adjusting to their new environment. Because problems may not come to the attention of your department until it is too late and employees are giving notice, it is strongly recommended to take a proactive approach in assisting new hires/transfers acclimate before there are problems, thereby lowering the risks for adverse consequences to everyone involved.



Deep Dive: Recognizing the Symptoms of Relocation Stress

New employees may be reluctant to open up to their bosses or others they work directly with about the stress and challenges related to the move that they and/or their family members may be experiencing. This is one of the key reasons we recommend having a neutral party from Human Resources take on the role of transition liaison.

But some employees may be reluctant to share their personal experiences even with the built-in confidentiality of interacting with a HR professional. This reluctance to open up with people outside one’s own circle of family and close friends may be the result of upbringing, culture, or previous life experiences. But there is another important reason: Your new employees may be unaware that the reactions they and/or family members are exhibiting may be symptomatic of relocation stress. If not educated on the subject matter, many people will tend to downplay the effects of the dramatic life changes surrounding relocation—this is especially true if several months have passed since the move.

In order to assist new hires and transfers through this stressful transition period, employers and employees must first be able to recognize the red flags that signal relocation stress may be at play. In addition to all of the personal, social and environmental factors already mentioned, below are common warning signs that your employees and/or family members may be at risk for experiencing adverse outcomes from relocation stress. It is recommended that these red flags are either used as generalized talking points between the transition liaison and new employees, or that employees are asked to read and circle which of the reactions or symptoms they or family members are experiencing and then conversations can focus just on those reactions identified by the employees themselves. Either way, HR professionals or managers should be prepared to assist new employees with resources and strategies to help them successfully address and remedy the transition challenges linked with these warning signs.



Red Flags someone may be suffering from Relocation Stress

-Becoming anxious or fearful of new situations.

-Being reluctant to talk about the move.

-Finding excessive fault with new people or places, including the new home.

-Unwillingness to explore the new environment.

-Generalized withdrawal/unwillingness to participate in activities or events enjoyed prior to the move.

-Lack of commitment to the new home or environment/ unusual willingness to jump ship and leave the new home/environment and/or job.

-Romanticizing the pre-relocation environment—frequently talking about the previous environment and conditions in idealistic terms.

-Lack of desire or willingness to join neighborhood meet-ups, groups, clubs, or organizations in the new area.

-Increased incidences of adverse physiological reactions, illnesses, accidents or injuries, or worsening of preexisting conditions.

-Increased incidences of adverse emotional or psychological responses (depression, anxiety, nervousness, jumpiness, etc.).

-Unusual sorrow over loss of the previous home.

-Increases in arguments or bickering among family members.

-Inability to regain normal sleep patterns and/or eating habits following the move.

-Disinterest, apathy or general lack of engagement with work projects or team members.

-Easily distracted, difficulty concentrating or staying focused and on-task.

-On edge, difficulty relaxing.

-Leaving the front door closed and drapes drawn when home.

-Reluctance to answer the door or take calls from numbers with the new area code.

-Using up unusually high numbers of sick days, vacation days, or personal time off.

-Increased consumption of alcohol or other substances (including prescription drugs).

-Preoccupation with what one perceives as “lost” due to the move.

-Excessive time spent on the internet or engaged in other activities that keeps one insulated and able to avoid interactions with new people and the new environment.

-Using phrases like “feeling trapped” in the new life circumstances, or repeatedly stating that the move was not one’s choice.

-Strong need to “fix” all problems in the new environment immediately; difficulty accepting any situation as “temporary”.

-Being remorseful about the move.

-Excessive complaining.

-Unusual sorrow over the separation from family, friends and activities in the previous environment.

-Decreased tolerance levels.

-Increased aggression, including while driving.

-Frequent statements about not fitting in with the new neighborhood, area, region or workplace environment.


P. Carlisle, Ph.D. and J. Frank, MBA, Ph.D. are authors of the book, “The Hidden Costs of Relocating Employees:  Corporate Strategies for Reducing Loss from Relocation Stress”

This article was originally published in Magazine