Expat postings: the road less travelled

When an expat gig is up for grabs in London, New York or Paris, it's often necessary to beat off a slew of willing contenders.

But what's the story when the firm is looking for someone to spend a year or two based somewhere a tad grittier, such as Nigeria, Pakistan or Papua New Guinea?

TIA - This is Africa. You have to take that in your stride. If you get upset about it, you'll have a bad time.

Are hardship posts just that? Or can accepting a role somewhere dirty, dangerous or dull be just as enjoyable and rewarding as one of the glamour gigs?

If you go with the right attitude the answer is a definite yes, says Brisbane oil and gas engineer Tim Wyatt after spending 2008 to 2011 in the former French colony of Gabon in West Africa.

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Bored with life in Australia, Wyatt took a job with Addax Petroleum in Geneva in 2007. Soon after arrival, though, his supervisor suggested he relocate to Gabon rather than flying in there for 12 days a month.

Before moving to Europe, his travel experience had been confined to work trips to the US and holidays in the Asia Pacific region - “nowhere very exotic and dangerous”, Wyatt says.

While his initial response was less than enthusiastic – “I didn't move my family to Switzerland to go and live in Africa” – a recce with his wife and children resulted in a change of heart.

The location's relative safety - compared with nearby countries where secure compounds and armed drivers came standard - coupled with tax-free pay with generous add-ons, helped sway the decision.


Their accommodation came with a 24-hour 'guardian' on the gate, but the family still enjoyed reasonable freedom of movement.

Workdays were long but weekends were spent with other expats at a nearby beach, swimming, fishing and enjoying a camaraderie intensified by the location.

“It was quite boring but if you had small kids, the beach life was pretty good,” Wyatt says.

“Financially it was very worthwhile and we met some great people and made some great friends.”

Uptight types may have viewed the tour less favourably, given it also encompassed a gamut of challenging experiences. These included a four-day lockdown during post-election riots of 2009 in which buildings were burned and several people killed; frequent water and power outages; regular flight delays; and the ongoing risk of malaria.

It's possible to cope with the vicissitudes by taking sensible precautions and rolling with the randomness of life in a developing country, Wyatt advises.

"TIA – This is Africa,” he says. “You have to take that in your stride – if you get upset about it, you'll have a bad time.”

Psychological and emotional resilience are key to thriving in a hardship post, Intelligent Travel director Mick Donaldson says.

The former SAS sergeant provides consultancy and training to companies deploying staff to remote and dangerous locations.

Training can run from a few hours to weeks and includes generic safety tips – avoid crowds, carry a sacrificial wallet, keep emergency contacts on speed dial – as well as detailed scenario planning for a gamut of emergencies.

“You need to strike a balance between getting the reality of the situation through and not leaving them terrified and not wanting to go,” Donaldson says of his briefings.

Although “bullets, bombs and bad guys” are headline grabbers, street crime, corruption, and health and medical threats are more likely causes of misadventure.

Encouraging individuals to take responsibility for their own safety and avoid rather than respond to trouble is vital, says Craig Coleman, the CEO of travel risk consultancy Professional Service Solutions.

Just as important is ensuring employers are aware of the risks and have contingency plans and adequate insurance for expat staff.

While physical threats can be mitigated, the mental challenges of a hardship post – loneliness, isolation and boredom – can be tougher to combat.

You stand a better chance if you keep fit and use technology to stay in touch, lawyer Andrew MacLeod believes.

A former aid official for Red Cross and the United Nations, his CV includes stints in Pakistan following the 2005 earthquake and in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

Macleod recently completed a nine-month community relations assignment for Rio Tinto in Mongolia, where extreme cold was the biggest risk faced by expats. Winter temperatures in the capital, Ulan Bator, regularly dipped to minus 40 degrees and provisions for new arrivals included custom-made fur boots.

Email and Skype have eliminated the isolation historically associated with hardship posts and made coping easier than it was when communiqués were limited to the odd fax or telegram, MacLeod believes.

“Use technology to stay in touch with home – it makes an amazing difference,” he says.

“You need to keep connected with family so you can share it all with them.”

Executives who can survive and thrive in adverse conditions may find the experience gives their CV a fillip, according to executive coach Virginia Mansell.

“Often with those postings, there's more autonomy and decision making authority and more freedom to exercise your leadership, “ she says.

“It's fantastic for getting those experiences that can round you out.”