A researcher married to a professional sailor is calling for international businesses wanting to attract top talent to better support the "stay behind families" of travelling employees.

And HR and parenting experts agree that helping those in this unique situation would pay off.

Massey University's Jo Mutter, whose husband is Volvo Ocean race competitor Tony Mutter, has recently completed a PhD on the experiences of partners and children of New Zealanders who work overseas regularly or for long periods while the rest of their family stays here.

Mutter and the couple's children, 13-year-old Alec and Cassandra, 9, live in Dairy Flat, Auckland. Her husband spends about half a year at sea and the rest of his time at the family home.


The kids and Mutter sometimes travel to meet him during stop overs and recently returned from a holiday with him in South Africa.

Massey University PhD candidate Jo Mutter (right) with husband Tony, who is a professional sailor, and their children Alec, 13, and Cassandra,9, on a recent trip to South Africa. Photo / Supplied
Massey University PhD candidate Jo Mutter (right) with husband Tony, who is a professional sailor, and their children Alec, 13, and Cassandra,9, on a recent trip to South Africa. Photo / Supplied

For her PhD, Mutter spoke to 21 women whose husbands work in a variety of industries - including mining, sport, sales and air travel - and many of the couples' children.

Some of the partners went overseas for short-term blocks of about three months, others were frequent business travellers and a third group were commuters who worked overseas for a period- often about two weeks - and returned home between stints.

Her findings included the importance of structure and routine and having whānau and empathetic support.

"People might think this is a glamourous life style and that we all earn as much as Russell Coutts, that's not the scenario doing this lifestyle," she said.

"You're less likely to ask for someone for help you think might not be empathetic to your situation."

Most of the children Mutter interviewed were well-adjusted, but being a stay behind family came with unique challenges, such as disruption to routine when the travelling parent left and returned.

Expat families were often given support by companies but existing research indicated not enough was being done to help stay behind families, Mutter said.

"This type of travel is considered much more as part of the job so they don't see the importance to support the families."'

Based on her findings, she suggested companies set up support networks to connect stay behind families using the Internet and social media, and pay for or subsidise trips to visit the working parent.

Local organisations could also help stay behind families by allowing the partners at home greater flexibility in employment.

"[Stay behind parents are] not looking a flexibility within a work day, they're looking at some sort of flexibility over the year - that is the thing these women needed if they wanted to maintain their careers."

Although statistics on stay behind families are lacking, Mutter says the lifestyle is "definitely growing" in New Zealand as online communications improve and international flights become cheaper.

"It's normal practice now to have a Skype meeting, you don't have to fly somewhere to manage your staff."

More organisations were setting up offices in countries with emerging economies such as Brazil, Russia, Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria and Turkey and hiring staff from overseas, she said, but these were places many Kiwis didn't want to take their families.

"If organisations want these jobs done they're going to have to come up with ways where people can do it but still keep their families wherever they want to be," she said.

"The more information we can give them and the more we can show them there is a familial impact and there is the potential for them to use this to attract staff or prevent the loss of staff."

Alan Pettersen, director of HR consultancy Positive People, said it made "complete and absolute sense" from a business perspective for employers to support stay-behind families.

"I do think it falls under the umbrella of saying if you've got a valuable employee then we should be providing as organisations the best possible support that you can then get the best out of each person because it works for them.

"If you go back and think about motivation and what applies to get people motivated it's really the organisation's role to create an environment where people want to do things."

Shelley Anderson, executive director of Home and Family Counselling, said isolation was one of the biggest issues in the community and companies needed to step up and support stay-behind families.

The Parenting Place's senior family coach Jenny Hale said all parents needed support and companies could do many things to support stay behind families, including funding techonology to make communicateion with the travelling parent easier.

"Whenever there's generosity in a firm towards a family or a recognition of a unique set of circumstances that they're under, it goes a long way.

"It is often in the form of financial but I think you could even do something like offering them parent support, being able to offer parents a few coaching sessions a year - maybe that's one way."