It is good practice routinely to offer personal debriefing to all expatriates when they return to their home country, preferably between 1 and 3 weeks after their return. Offering debriefing routinely rather than on request is preferable, as many people do not feel that they will benefit from it until after they have received it. Moreover, some people are concerned that requesting debriefing might be taken as a sign of weakness and affect future employment prospects.
While operational debriefing focuses on tasks, personal debriefing is concerned with how expatriates have been affected personally. A structured approach can be used, along the lines of the CISD model, modified for use with an individual after multiple stressors (Armstrong et al., 1995, 1998). Debriefing should not be rushed. The expatriate should be invited to reflect on the whole experience, paying particular attention to any traumatic incidents or longer-term stressors. Each incident or stressor can be explored using the CISD model. The expatriate should be asked about the worst part of the experience, but they do not need to describe this in graphic detail. He or she should also be asked what the best parts of the experience were, and what has been learned, to help integrate the experience as a whole and find meaning in it. There should be an opportunity to discuss how the expatriate feel about being back 'home', and for the de-briefer to provide information about the readjustment process.
Personal debriefing should help the expatriate to normalize any symptoms of stress, and move on towards thinking about the future. Information should be given about sources of further help should he or she wish to take this up, and a follow-up appointment should be arranged if this is desired. Debriefing along these lines can also be offered to groups (Fawcett, 1999). The process can be used with families, and it is certainly important to include older teenagers.
Approximately 25% of returned aid workers report clinically significant symptoms of avoidance and intrusive thoughts months after returning from a post overseas (Lovell, 1997). Although they do not necessarily meet the diagnostic criteria for PTSD, such symptoms are distressing and can interfere with normal functioning. One study indicated that after a single session of personal debriefing, lasting on average about 2 h, only 7% of aid workers reported clinically significant levels of avoidance or intrusion (Lovell, 1999b). This suggests that personal debriefing may play an important role in preventing the development of PTSD-related symptoms.
Approximately 36% of aid workers report developing depression shortly after their return home (Lovell, 1997). In many cases this is related to difficulty readjusting to life at home, or to a sense of meaninglessness. A skilled de-briefer can guide the expatriate towards identifying a sense of meaning in the overseas experience, and help to normalize the adjustment process. People who have received debriefing may also be more likely to accept further help, such as counselling, if this is required.
Expatriates generally feel very tired when they return home, and benefit from ample time to rest before resuming work. For longer-term expatriates, it might take months to fully adjust (Lovell, 1997). Care should be taken to support them through this transition period, and not put pressure on them to prepare quickly for another overseas assignment.
Was this article helpful?