From Afterthought to All-Star: The Evolution of Employee and Family Assistance Services

Lauren Herring, Amy Parrent, and Lynn Wagner - Feb 26 2024
Published in: Mobility
| Updated Feb 26 2024
As companies recognize the crucial role that the well-being of both the transferring employee and any accompanying family plays in the success of a move, this still-often-overlooked perk has transformed into a dynamic catalyst for both personal and professional growth.

 From providing a mere helping hand to an empowering support system, the scope of the once limited “spouse assistance” benefit has shifted dramatically. As companies recognize the crucial role that the well-being of both the transferring employee and any accompanying family plays in the success of a move, this still-often-overlooked perk has transformed into a dynamic catalyst for both personal and professional growth. Support experiences that evoke more confidence to face challenges and relieve pressure and anxiety about the move tell the tale of how employee and family assistance should move from an afterthought to an all-star in the world of corporate relocation.

Historically, organizations have viewed corporate relocation as a “work event,” with the goal of getting an employee from A to B as quickly and cheaply as possible. The traditionally labeled “spouse assistance” policy emerged in the 1980s and was job-search assistance for accompanying spouses and, more recently, partners. However, that was typically offered more selectively, and often for the spouses and partners who requested, or even demanded, additional support.

Over the last number of years, we’ve heard a lot of talk about the employee experience throughout the industry, but most policies stayed relatively unchanged in this area, and budgets continue to be limited.
In today’s tight labor market, and with a post-pandemic focus on well-being and sustainability, business leaders now see relocation in a new light. Rather than a work event, a move is increasingly seen as a life event that impacts every aspect of an employee’s personal and professional life. We are, after all, human beings first, and employees second. This has prompted a new look at how the relocation industry can support both employees on the move and their families.

“Spouse assistance” has now evolved to “employee and family assistance,” and this evolution allows companies to proactively support the well-being of the whole household and, by extension, set the employee up for greater success in the new role.

Historical Perspective: Spouse/Partner Assistance in Relocation

In the early days, spouse assistance services primarily focused on job-search support for “trailing” spouses. The idea was to help the spouse (back in those days, rarely did partners receive benefits) find employment in the new location. This benefit boosted offer acceptance rates for dual-career families, especially because it served to bridge the financial deficit they experienced when one partner had to leave a job, sacrificing career status and a paycheck so the other could relocate. This benefit also improves employee engagement and retention following the move because the family can continue to rely on two incomes and both partners are more engaged in the new city.

While this approach was well-intentioned, it had its limitations. By virtue of the months-long coaching relationships that were established, those providing the job search support often learned of broader needs and challenges faced by relocating families but were limited in service scope to address them. Those limits became increasingly evident as relocating populations grew more diverse and complex. Consider the family with intergenerational caregiving responsibilities or an employee with neurodiversity working to establish new and meaningful connections. It’s now apparent that all families—regardless of dual-career status—and even singles, too, were dealing with challenges with settling into the new location: finding new resources, creating new routines, managing the stress of the move, and building social connections. These emerged as crucial factors impacting the overall well-being of employees and their families during relocation. As a result, the industry now recognizes a need for more comprehensive integration support beyond job-search assistance.

Current State: Undervalued, Underutilized, and Misrepresented

Despite a historic talent shortage and the growing recognition of the need for holistic well-being support during relocation, the industry’s response has been inconsistent. There is limited awareness of solutions that already exist in the ecosystem of providers. As a result, the focus often remains on traditional job-search support, while other crucial aspects of well-being have been overlooked.

This lack of awareness is further evident in the lagging policies surrounding employee and family assistance services. The wording and provisions within relocation policies have not kept up with the evolving needs of employees and their families. Best practice today is not to offer “spouse/partner assistance” but rather “employee and family assistance.”

Finally, even when policy wording and intent are updated, there are inconsistencies in access to the services. Whether a policy includes the services as a standard provision or among “flex” options in a core/flex structure, often people pass them over not understanding how it could support them because—even within the mobility industry— these services are not well communicated or understood.

For this reason, Pfizer, an early adopter of adding support services into their policies, has made the offering core for most moves. Michael Washbourn, senior manager and global mobility lead at Pfizer, says that “people often don’t even recognize the various needs they have when it comes to settling into a new location. It’s not unusual for our colleagues to tell us the service was invaluable, and until they moved, they didn’t know how necessary it was.”

Beyond ROI: Return on Experience

To further contextualize this strategic shift from optional spousal assistance to core support through a life event, consider organizations’ duty of care obligations. The pandemic created a new focus and urgency to support employees through a relocation life event. Organizations focused on winning and retaining talent are now reframing their duty of care responsibilities to address their employees’ well-being.
Employee well-being goes beyond traditional return on investment (ROI) considerations and aligns with employers’ responsibility to support their employees’ overall health and happiness. By providing comprehensive well-being support during relocation, organizations can meet their duty of care obligations and create an inclusive and equitable workplace culture, while also boosting productivity, engagement, and retention.

Lynn Greenberg, CEO of Pivt, points out that a recent study by Virgin Pulse found that 71% of survey respondents say that they can clearly see an ROI of their well-being efforts and 59% plan to add to their health and well-being programs in the next year. “If we have learned anything through the pandemic, it’s that life affects work and work affects life,” she says. “The companies that want to attract and retain the best talent are leaning into this and finding new and more ways to support employees and their partners/spouses.”
As organizations strive to meet diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging initiatives, providing holistic well-being support ensures that all employees, including unaccompanied employees and those from diverse households, are equally supported during the relocation process.

Implementing Effective Solutions

To address these challenges, organizations need to implement several key solutions. First, policy updates are necessary to incorporate holistic well-being support as a core component of relocation policies. Making this support core doesn’t need to break the relocation bank either. Tessa Boone, talent mobility manager at Ford Motor Company, says, “Employee and family support services are a low-cost way to add significant value to our relocation policy. The success of the international assignment for our employees is heavily dependent on the successful integration and overall well-being of the family in the new location.”

Partnering with well-being experts can also be instrumental in delivering effective support during relocation. These experts can provide guidance, counseling, and coaching to both employees and their families, addressing various aspects of well-being, including integrating into the new community, finding resources in the new location, managing stress during the change, and making new social connections.

Another critical component to successfully implementing these services is transferees getting proper access to the services. Because the benefit is less well known, not urgently required, and usually assumed as something for the spouse or partner, it is often glossed over, or perhaps a note is made to circle back around to it later, but later never comes.

This service is designed to be preventative in nature, while also making the whole experience better from beginning to end.

Looking Forward

The evolution of spouse/partner assistance in the relocation industry has transformed from traditional job-search support for the accompanying spouse/partner into a core benefit of comprehensive well-being support. Organizations need to update their relocation policies and service processes to address the changing needs of relocating populations. By embracing holistic well-being support, organizations can fulfill their duty of care obligations, meet diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, and create a supportive and inclusive work environment.

Lauren Herring, SGMS-T, SCRP, is the CEO of IMPACT Group. 
Amy Parrent, GMS-T, GRP, is the head of global mobility at Vanguard. 
Lynn Wagner, CRP, GMS-T, is the president at REA.