The majority of expats consider their years abroad as an investment in their future career. Therefore, they are willing to accept a very high workload, long hours, many business trips and business-related social events. An energetic to hectic business life, however, often leads to neglecting the personal life. Absent from home most of the time, expats often don’t notice what is going on there.
At first, the accompanying partners suffer from a high stress level as well, in particular just after arriving in a new country. Depending on the local area, many have to manage their daily life under much more difficult conditions than at home. Almost every day they face individual challenges – from doing the school run during the rush-hour in Bangkok to finding a plumber in Marrakesh to reading labels in a Chinese supermarket.
After a few months or so, things may slowly have turned around though: The children are now taking the bus to school and are out of the house all day. The new environment has been extensively explored. And a fantastic domestic worker might have taken over all the housework and food shopping, simply because this is the normal way in the local expat community. Finding a job may be out of question, because a work permit would not be granted or the language barrier is high. At the same time, local leisure activities can be restricted due to travel, safety or climate. Many accompanying partners spend more and more monotonous days within a small expat compound, a few lunches and charity events being the highlights of the week.
When The Gap Widens
And so the gap between the life of the overburdened expat and the life of the underchallenged accompanying partner quickly widens. The working partner is exhausted by his strenuous daily demands, while the accompanying partner is bored to death by a desolate existence in a golden cage. Both are heading for either a burn-out or a bore-out, with very similar consequences.
The term burn-out is relatively well-known and describes physical, emotional and mental exhaustion. Those affected have usually started their job with great enthusiasm and develop mental health issues through excessive stress, unsolved problems and frustrating experiences. Personal performance does not seem to meet the increasing demands. They feel burnt out, empty, powerless, irritable and distant. Even on holiday they cannot relax, find inner peace and recover.
Science describes 12 phases of a burnout:
- Urge to prove something to oneself and others
- Extreme striving for performance to meet particularly high expectations
- Overwork with neglect of other personal needs and social contacts
- Ignoring problems and conflicts
- Doubts about one’s own value system and formerly important things like hobbies and friends
- Denial of emerging problems, increasing intolerance and contempt for others
- Withdrawal and keeping social contacts to a minimum
- Obvious behavioural changes, progressive feeling of worthlessness, increasing anxiety
- Depersonalisation through loss of contact to oneself and to others
- Inner emptiness and desperate attempts to mask these feelings
- Depression with symptoms of indifference, hopelessness, exhaustion and lack of perspective
- Acute danger of mental and physical collapse, suicidal thoughts as a way out
A bore-out often expresses itself in the same way as a burn-out. However, its main causes are understrain, boredom, inactivity and helplessness. What actually sounds so nice, namely the sweet doing nothing, is in truth the bare mental horror. Killing the time, without perspective on personal fulfilment, recognition and spiritual nourishment becomes torture. The few daily tasks – or often also the quite numerous, but undemanding tasks – are unnecessarily protracted to fill the day. The energy level decreases from week to week, while self-doubts increase. It is difficult for those affected to pull themselves together. Often they do not even realise that their exhaustion results from doing nothing – also because their environment is of the opinion that they should be extremely happy, content and well.
Health Means Balance
Contrary to common parlance, the term “health” does not only describe the absence of any illness. It also means to have a good balance of mental, emotional, physical, social and spiritual components in life. This balance not only forms the basis for a better quality of life, but also for lasting performance. So if you want to keep fit for your job or everyday demands abroad, you have to pay attention not only to your physical health, but also to your mental well-being, stable emotional support, social contacts and mental nourishment.
The Way Out Between Burn-out Versus Bore-out
For the working expat, this is countered by the numerous stress factors that cannot simply be turned off. For the accompanying partner, the key is to fill the gaps. Both partners would benefit from working on this together, ideally with professional support, e.g. with an experienced coach or counseller. They will raise the following aspects of expat life to begin with:
- Expats often have the feeling that they have to complete all tasks particularly well from day. Nevertheless, it is quite professional as well to ensure a good balance between giving and taking at the work place by letting people help you. So don’t just take care of the tasks, but also of good relationships with new colleagues.
- To escape the constant time pressure, work on your priorities. Surely, you are familiar with the Pareto principle, according to which 80 percent of the possible outcome can be achieved with 20 percent of the tasks to be performed. But this includes recognizing the right 20 percent. This principle can hardly be implemented consistently, but some things can actually be delegated or delayed. Then give the other areas of your life a higher priority again.
- Your partner and family need more attention abroad than in their home environment. Instead of isolating yourself from your loved ones in busy weeks, keep in mind that expatriate partnerships often suffer from the fact that both lead very different lives. Don’t allow that the common points of contact quickly become fewer.
- As a couple, sit down regularly and talk about how you are doing at the moment. Get feedback on how your partner/children feel abroad. Plan fixed times for regular joint activities. Creating memories will carry you through difficult phases of your time abroad.
- Frequently, accompanying partners think it is good to keep their problems and worries away from their stressed-out working partners. In the long run, however, they are not doing the partnership any favours. Frustration and the feeling of having to make too great a sacrifice for the other’s career gradually poison the partnership. Instead, demand your partner’s attention and devotion. Time spent together is good for both of you!
- Making new contacts and finding real friends abroad is often difficult. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to think that you could manage these three or four years without a social network. For a healthy life-work balance, meeting-up in a relaxed atmosphere is simply a must. It is just as beneficial to maintain intensive contacts with friends and family at home.
- Finding the right balance also means finding the desired amount of time for personal interests. It’s all about feeding your mind and getting excited about things. Put together a small mental nutrition program that you can enjoy and which will positively challenge you. Cultural activities or hobbies abroad are not always easy to organise. But where there is a will, there is usually a way. Be open to new things, because your host country may have a lot to offer that you have never come into contact with befo
- Treat yourself to more exercise. Sports or relaxation exercises are best suited to reducing stress or boredom. A healthy diet can contribute to your physical well-being. You have read all this many times before, but have not yet put it into practice? Then perhaps this argument will convince you: Even small steps lead to the goal, because they quickly whet your appetite for more!
- Talk to an experienced expat support coach.
Katrin Koll Prakoonwit
- An energetic to hectic business life, however, often leads to neglecting the personal life.
- The accompanying partners suffer from a high stress level as well, in particular just after arriving in a new country.
- After a few months, things may slowly have turned around. Now many accompanying partners spend monotonous days within a small expat compound.
- The gap between the life of the overburdened expat and the life of the underchallenged accompanying partner quickly widens.
- Both are heading for either a burn-out or a bore-out, with very similar consequences.
- Working on this together, ideally with professional support, e.g. coaching or counselling, increases mental well-being.