How to Keep Work-Life Balance Abroad
Expats tend to take on demanding jobs abroad and, as non-natives, we often feel we constantly have to prove ourselves. This can result in us neglecting the truly important things in life. We may end up feeling exhausted, down or physically unwell in the long term. A life too focused on work can also put strain on our relationships. We discuss why managing a balance between your work and free time is important and how to do it in a way that works for you…
A modern lifestyle requires most of us to spend a lot of our time working. And with 24/7 access to technology, it becomes difficult to disconnect from work even when we’re at home. When working abroad, expats are expected to adapt quickly and perform well in the new environment. This puts a lot of pressure on both the working expat and their partner or family.
As a result, there’s a risk that we begin to over-prioritise our professional identity at the expense of our personal identity. Yet both aspects need care and attention if we are to flourish and lead happy, full lives with enriching relationships and varied interests.
Putting work in perspective
A key step to finding balance again is to recognize that work is only one part of your life. It’s an important part, of course, and there’s no denying that it can be a pressure cooker. But it’s no more important than your health, relationships and all the other things that make up who you are.
Of course, you will also function better at work when your life is in balance. If you are feeling relaxed and whole, your mind will be sharper, you will be more resilient in the face of work challenges, and you’ll be highly productive. Conversely, if you feel emotionally and/or physically drained after months or years of putting your career first, you may find that you are less effective – even unhappy – at work.
All work and no play…
Poor work-life balance can lead to high or chronic stress (as a 2006 report by Graham Lowe found). Additionally, a persistently demanding work schedule can create significant health risks. Higher levels of smoking and alcohol consumption, weight gain and depression as well as other mental and physical health concerns are common. You might also be at risk of burnout if you feel something is missing in your life, have disturbed sleeping patterns or headaches and/or experience chronic fatigue.
Always putting work first can also have an effect on your personal and family life. If loved ones struggle with our absence or are affected by our high stress levels, it can erode bonds and lead to tension and resentment. As expats, distanced from our usual support system at “home”, we tend to rely more on our partners and family – which is why fostering a strong relationship/family life is a crucial element of a healthy lifestyle.
What is important to you?
An excellent start to finding balance is to know which parts of your life matter the most to you. Ask yourself:
- What are my values?
- What makes me happy, or when do I feel at my best?
- What makes me feel productive or that I contribute?
- What energises me?
- How much of my day-to-day life do I want to be working?
If it helps, make a list of the areas most to least important to you – this gives an overview of how you’d like your life to be. Compare this list with how much time and attention you currently give to these areas. Do you spend more time on the less important things or less time on the more important things?
A balanced approach to balance
Now that you know what matters to you, it’s important not to go overboard and exhaust yourself in your attempts to “find balance”. A healthy balance also doesn’t mean that you need to dedicate an equal amount of time to each area of your life.
Some even consider work-life balance to be a myth. The most important thing is to define what balance means for you and if, at the end of the day, you want to have it in your life.
If you’re committing to a balanced life, take into account the ebb and flow of life. Your priorities may change and your schedule will shift. At certain times (e.g. when nearing a big deadline or starting in a new position), work may take a leading role. That’s okay, as long as this doesn’t become an entrenched pattern (especially if you always have deadlines!). Then, when the busy-ness has passed, it’s time to recalibrate and pay attention to anything that took a back seat while you were busy.
Top tips to keep a work-life balance
- Make small changes
From your list above, determine which areas are most important and commit to spending more time on those first. Finding lifestyle balance will take time, so remember to stay positive and patient – gradually you will find your ideal balance.
- Set realistic goals
By setting goals that can work in your circumstances, you will be able to slowly shift to greater balance.
When you begin to feel overwhelmed at work or elsewhere, chat to someone you trust, or ask for help.
- Speak to a professional
If your loved ones repeatedly say you’re a workaholic, or if you feel things are getting out of control, get in touch with a certified counsellor so you can discuss concrete solutions for your particular challenges.
- Learn to say “no” and to delegate
Try not to take on more than you can handle at work or in other areas of your life. If you have a stressful week ahead, don’t commit to dinner out every night. If you have a relaxed week, catch up on something or someone important to you. Get to know your limits and set boundaries at work (e.g. “Unless there is a major issue, I will leave at 5 pm”). And remember: “no” is a full answer. We don’t have to spend time and energy on explaining why we’ve chosen to decline.
- Don’t bring work home with you
Although this isn’t easy in a digital age, it is essential to have a clear ritual to distinguish your personal from professional life. Some ideas to help you disengage: listen to a podcast or audiobook on your commute home, head straight to the gym after work, limit how long you spend talking about work, shut the door and take a bath before joining your loved ones for a relaxed evening.
- Enjoy the (many!) benefits of exercise
Keeping up a fitness routine can drop to the bottom of our list of priorities when we move abroad, and especially in those early stages when we’re still figuring out what is where. Yet exercise is vital for keeping us both physically healthy and more resilient under stress. Mental health benefits of keeping fit include self-confidence, a sharper memory and a boost of “feel good” hormones. (Find some great tips on creating an exercise routine that works for YOU here.)
Remember, it’s up to you to decide what balance means for you. Be kind to yourself, be honest about what makes you happy, and then work within your particular constraints to make it work for you.
Do you think work-life balance is possible? How do you approach it? Feel free to share your tips and techniques – you might just have the answer to someone else’s dilemma.
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P.S. Thanks to Thomas Tischhauser for his contribution to this article.