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5 Ways to Wellbeing for Expats

The discussions about mental health are growing.  That’s good news.  In society and in workplaces we are becoming more comfortable asking R U OK? We are more aware of the risks of overwork, the dangers of burnout from being always available, and the negative impacts of bullying and unsafe workplaces. 

Focusing specifically on expats, we are aware of the increased risks to mental health for workers on overseas assignment.  A 2011 study showed US expats were 2.5 times more likely to report symptoms of depression or anxiety than a home-based cohort with 56% of the overseas respondents reporting symptoms.  Expatriates were also found to use substances (drugs or alcohol) at higher rates and in greater amounts, and with more negative consequences than their U.S.-based counterparts.

2017 research by Insurance company Aetna; “Expatriate mental health: Breaking the silence and ending the stigma” by Dr. Mitesh Patel, reviews the size of the problem and adds that only 6% of respondents expressed concern about their mental health before taking up an overseas assignment.

But perhaps warnings of impending mental illness and descriptions of the risks inherent in the challenges they are facing are not the best way to appeal to a population group who, as the Aetna research described, “have a mind-set that embraces risk and challenges”.

Instead I would suggest an approach that discusses how to build wellbeing in an international location, as opposed to being on the lookout for potential illness.   So how can we build wellbeing?

A simple evidence based approach to wellbeing was developed by The British New Economic Foundation and has been absorbed into programs for many different client groups.  Like the dietary guidelines to eat 5 fruit and 2 vegetables daily, it is anticipated the 5 Ways to Wellbeing will become accepted ways to take care of ourselves. 

What are those 5 Ways and how can they apply to expats?

1 Connect      

Our relationships are critical to our wellbeing.  We need connection as much as we need food and water.  But this is probably one of the hardest Ways for expats to score well.

When you’ve pulled up roots and moved continents or countries, your networks and friendships are impacted. In a 2017 study by Aetna, 46% of expats reported “missing their friends and family a lot.”  While new friendships can be made on assignment, and these relationships are often anecdotally very supportive, it can take time and effort, - two things expats may lack as they focus on new job and location demands.

Connections with old friends and family can now be easily maintained thanks to Skype and social media, but challenges may arise.  Misunderstandings or jealousy can complicate honest conversations about the reality of the new location and the expat’s experience. Connections can be hard work and need to be consciously planned and worked on.

2 Be Active   

Exercising makes you feel good.  In many new locations, the opportunities for exercise increase.   A different climate, new environment, gym facilities, expat sporting clubs –these can all provide opportunities to be active in new and interesting ways.  A desire to explore a new location will get you out walking. 

Some research may be needed to uncover the possibilities in the location, but this Way is one many expats increase during an assignment. The risk is for those expats who have lost a favourite form of exercise and find it hard to replace with a viable alternative. I’m thinking of an Aussie surfer who moved far from the surf he had loved and struggled to find an exercise form that he enjoyed in the new location.

3 Take Notice

From a wellbeing perspective, when we are taking notice in the moment we aren’t ruminating about the past or worrying about the future.  This Way is something expats usually find easy –at least in the early days in a new location.  Being aware of the world around you.  Being curious and observant.  Noticing the changes. Trying new food and drinks and savouring the different tastes.  The challenge here is to keep the habit going when the newness wears off.

4 Keep Learning

Try something new.  In the early days of an overseas assignment it can feel like you are constantly trying something new.   New work challenges, new languages or new idioms, new cultures, music, art, architecture; there is much to observe and learn. Again the challenge is to keep learning beyond the early days. 

5 Give

Do something nice for a friend, neighbour, stranger.  Give of your time, your skills, your money, your energy. Giving helps us to maintain perspective and appreciate what we have and it rewards us with intrinsic satisfaction if not the extrinsic appreciation of the recipient. 

Often global workers in less developed countries quickly become involved in giving; donating time and money to projects that build communities.  Partners who may not have a visa for paid work often give of their skills and work voluntarily as in this example.

 So how are you going on your 5 Ways to Wellbeing?  Are they easier or harder for you where you are currently living?  What can you do to build the 5 Ways into your daily life?

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