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Coping With Fear of and Exposure to Terrorism Among Expatriates

By Nicholas J. Beutell* ID, Marianne M. O’Hare**, Joy A. Schneer*** ID and Jeffrey W. Alstete****.


This paper examines existing research on the impact of terrorism on expatriate coping strategies. We consider pre-assignment fear of terrorism, in-country coping strategies, and anxiety and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) associated with repatriation. The extant research is small but growing. Our model for expatriate coping at the pre-departure, in-country, and repatriation stages includes strategies specific to each stage. Preparation using proactive coping, systematic desensitization, problem and emotion focused coping, social support, and virtual reality explorations are recommended. Selecting expatriate candidates who are well-adjusted, emotionally intelligent, and possessing good coping skills is essential for successful assignments in terror-prone regions.

Keywords: expatriates, international assignees, stress, fear, terrorism, hostile environments coping, repatriates, duty of care, virtual reality, post-traumatic stress disorder

1. Introduction

As company needs for successful expatriates are increasing, so is the proliferation of terrorist activities and fear of terrorist threats in many parts of the world. Fear has already been identified as a problem for expatriate workers [1], including a specific fear of terrorism or terrorist threats [2]. To complicate these matters, terrorism can be extremely disruptive to international business activities [3]. We know that the threat of terrorism increases stress [4] as well as employee anger, frustration, and negative emotions [5]. Since many of the extant models of expatriation are based on stress theory [6], our primary interest is in coping with the stress of different stages of expatriation. Few studies have focused specifically on expatriate coping with the fear of terrorism and specific strategies for dealing with terroristic threats and attacks. We examine the anticipation of, and possible posting to, a country where there is a threat of terrorist activity. As Bader, Reade and Froese [6] have argued, expatriate stressors in terror-endangered countries go beyond regular expatriate cultural adjustment processes. The threat of terrorism is qualitatively different from the typical stressors affecting expatriate adjustment. This paper considers the psychological aspects of coping with the fear of and exposure to terrorism. Very little research has focused on individuals and terrorism in a business context [7] using psychological stress and coping models. Our approach is intended to complement the growing research on expatriates in hostile environments [7–9]. Specifically, we propose: (1) to examine the literature on expatriate coping in relation to terrorism; (2) present a heuristic model of coping strategies for pre-assignment, on-ground, and repatriation stages; and (3) suggest directions for future research on coping with terrorist threats and behaviors.

2. What Is Terrorism?

While an exact definition of terrorism has been elusive there are a number of agreed upon aspects that comprise terroristic behavior. As Miranda [10] has stated “the 21st century is seeing an explosion of asymmetrical and unconventional warfare of which terrorism is an ascending form” (p. 49). Essentially, terrorism is psychological warfare [11]. We focus on international terrorism, although, in the case of expatriates, terrorism could be domestic, international, or both. International terrorism means activities with the following three characteristics:

  • Involve violent acts or acts dangerous to human life;

  • Appear to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; and

  • Transcend national boundaries in terms of the means by which they are accomplished, the persons they appear intended to intimidate or coerce, or the locale in which their perpetrators operate or seek asylum.

Furthermore, most of the terrorism today appears to be based on the concept of a just war theory and the Islamic norms of jihad and shahadat to justify terrorism [12], although opinions vary on the divergence between jihad and terrorism in today’s context [13]. It should also be noted that terrorism and the threat of terrorism are less predictable and more frequent as time goes on since individuals and small groups have the capability of initiating attacks [14]. A topical study suggests that “global terrorism has increased in recent years and occurs in unexpected places, at unexpected times, with unexpected casualties” [15] (p. 3). In effect, the threat of terrorism is omnipresent.

3. What Is an Expatriate?

The answer to this seemingly innocuous question is more complicated than it would appear. Recent work by McNulty and Brewster [16], however, suggests the following definition:

legally working individuals who reside temporarily in a country of which they are not a citizen in order to accomplish a career-related goal, being relocated abroad either by an organization, by self-initiation or directly employed within the host-country (p. 20).

This definition focuses on business expatriates and is consistent with the field of international human resource management. It excludes other groups such as tourists or immigrants. Workers assigned to foreign countries often experience a stress-induced reaction, culture shock, as they are confronted with the realities of their new environment [17]. However, successful expatriates offer many potential benefits, such as the “transfer of managerial and technological knowledge, better control of foreign subsidiaries, improved communication, and more secure business transactions” (p. 135) [18]. Therefore, it is important that businesses stay informed about the rapidly developing and changing nature of international work assignments, currently pressing stressors such as terrorism, and methods to effectively prepare expatriates to manage these potential problems.

We recognize that there are other types of international assignees in addition to expatriates. These include corporate executives who engage in short but frequent global travel. Such temporary travel is different from spending prolonged periods in a location where one feels the threat of terrorism. Our definition of expatriates requires an extended duration foreign assignment (typically from six months to five years). This allows us to conceptualize coping strategies that may be effective before the foreign assignment, during the assignment, and after completion of the assignment in a region perceived as terror-prone.

We recognize that there are other types of international assignees in addition to expatriates. These include corporate executives who engage in short but frequent global travel. Such temporary travel is different from spending prolonged periods in a location where one feels the threat of terrorism. Our definition of expatriates requires an extended duration foreign assignment (typically from six months to five years). This allows us to conceptualize coping strategies that may be effective before the foreign assignment, during the assignment, and after completion of the assignment in a region perceived as terror-prone.

4. Coping with Exposure to Terrorism: Models and Research

With the globalization of markets and the rise in terrorism, living and working in a foreign country can be dangerous and stressful for expatriates and other international assignees. As a result, researchers have been giving attention to the behaviors that enable expatriates to live and work in countries that are under constant threat of terrorism [19]. In addition, attention is being given to the traits and coping strategies of expatriates. It has been suggested that organizations should select expatriates on such personality traits as emotional stability, being outgoing and agreeable, and being open to new experiences [19]. However, it is also important to understand the coping strategies used by expatriates; that prepare and allow them to live and work in a foreign country and, also deal with the challenges of living in an environment in which there is constant imminent danger [20,21].

Coping is defined as “constantly changing cognitive and behavioral efforts to manage specific external and internal demands that are appraised as taxing or exceeding the resources of the person” [22] (p. 141). This is consistent with other research on coping among expatriates [23]. We examine the extant literature focusing on expatriates along with some of the models (e.g., conservation of resources) that support previous empirical work focusing specifically on expatriates as well as other work that is germane to expatriates. Lazarus and Folkman [22] identify two broad types of coping responses: emotion-focused and problem-focused. Emotion-focused coping tries to reduce negative emotional reactions to events (like terrorism) that are not controlled by the individual. Problem-focused coping is an individual’s attempt to remove or reduce the source of stress. This is a more proactive attempt to deal with the stressor(s). This distinction between emotion-focused and problem-focused coping has been used in previous work examining expatriate coping [23,24]. Some research suggests that emotion-focused coping is more effective in dealing with terror events since such occurrences are unpredictable, uncontrollable, and produce chronic stress [25]. It has also been suggested that coping with uncontrollable events such as terrorism, may require a blending of problem-focused and emotion-focused approaches [25].

The growing body of research that focuses on coping strategies and behaviors of expatriates frequently uses the Lazarus and Folkman [22] model of stress, appraisal, and coping. This model views coping as a transactional process: that is, once an encounter is appraised by the expatriate as a threat, the expatriate utilizes cognitive and/or behavioral strategies intended to manage, alter, or regulate distress. Coping is an ongoing process whereby expatriates use cognitive or behavioral factors to exert control over a threatening situation [11]. A reaction to a threat can, in fact, become a stressor itself.

Stahl and Caligiuri [23], for example, investigated the coping behaviors of expatriate managers, using the Lazarus and Folkman [22] framework, to understand the manager’s cross-cultural adjustment. The results were mixed. There was a relatively high level of adjustment, using problem-solving coping strategies [22], but contingent on position level and country of assignment [23]. They did not focus on the effects of coping with the constant threat of terrorism but their results indicate differences in coping strategies based on country and level in the organization.

Giorgi, Montani, Fiz-Perez, Arcangeli and Mucci [21] did explore fear of terrorism with respect to mental health and adjustment to the foreign country. During periods of stress, an expatriate suffers health problems and, also, anxiety related to expatriation itself [21]. The risk factors associated with health problems and anxiety include: being involved in accidents, poor living conditions, unsafe working conditions, disease contagion, fear of kidnapping, violence, and terrorist attacks. Giorgi, Montani, Fiz-Perez, Arcangeli and Mucci [21] built on the Lazarus and Folkman [22] model of stress and coping and examined the emergence of fear of expatriation due to the risk factors in 265 Italian expatriates from one company. The authors note that fear of expatriation, in their study, was associated with mental health problems, such as stress, anxiety, loneliness, and homesickness. It was also noted that expatriates cannot count on family or trusted friends for support [21]. The findings were supportive of Lazarus and Folkman [22] and affective events theory [26]. Such results indicated that the fear of expatriation generalized to further fears in the workplace and make it unlikely that the expatriate will adjust to the destination or the work [21]. Although this study was concerned with the expatriate’s fear of terrorism, it did not address the issue of coping with the imminent threat of a terrorist attack while the expatriate is living in the foreign country.

An interesting and potentially useful framework that might be applied to the expatriate’s living and working abroad, is the idea of proactive coping [26]. Although their work is not directly focusing on expatriates, Aspinwall and Taylor [26] explain proactive coping as the efforts that a person would take in order to prepare for a perceived possible threat, before it occurs, in an effort to prevent or modify it, if it should it occur [26]. Hobfoll et al. [27] allude to a similar idea in their study of terrorism in Israel, with Jewish and Palestine citizens (non-expatriates). Aspinwall and Taylor [26] discussed the differences among proactive coping, “coping”, and “anticipatory coping” [28]. Proactive coping differs from “coping” (an attempt to master, tolerate, or reduce perceived, potential threats) [29] and “anticipatory coping” (preparation for dealing with the consequences of an upcoming, potential threat [28,29] in that the stressful event has not occurred. That is, according to Aspinwall and Taylor [26], proactive coping does not address a specific event. Therefore, it is important to develop skills that enable the person (expatriate) to identify potential sources of threat and prepare for their possibility or even inevitability. It is suggested that, even in the case of an unavoidable stressful event, proactive coping will be associated with more positive adjustment than will the person who did not engage in preparatory activities [26].

*Nicholas J. Beutell, School of Business, Iona College, New Rochelle, NY 10801, USA;

**Marianne M. O’Hare, College of Education and Human Services, Seton Hall University, South Orange, NJ 07079, USA;

***Joy A. Schneer College of Business Administration, Rider University, Lawrenceville, NJ 08648, USA;

****Jeffrey W. Alstete, School of Business, Iona College, New Rochelle, NY 10801, USA

Suggested Citation:

Beutell, Nicholas and O'Hare, Marianne and Schneer, Joy and Alstete, Jeffrey, Coping With Fear of and Exposure to Terrorism Among Expatriates (July 19, 2017). Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2017, 14, 808 . Available at SSRN:


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