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Expatriate stress: Top five pressure points

Working abroad or accompanying your spouse on international assignment?

Don’t underestimate its potential to impact your mental health.

Research shows expatriates are more likely to struggle with stress, anxiety, depression and alcohol/substance abuse than their counterparts back home — yet in an Aetna International survey, only 6 percent of respondents expressed concern about this possibility.1,2

Learn the top five pressure points impacting expat workers and family members, and find out what you can do to prevent them.

Cultural and language barriers

Challenge: Being an expert in your field isn’t enough to ensure assignment success. The interpersonal skills you need at home become even more important when joining a workplace — especially if you don’t speak the native language or know the local culture well. Feeling like an “outsider” can negatively impact your mental health.

Solution: Make extra efforts as soon as you are assigned to take conversational language lessons and learn as much as you can about cultural norms. Employers may connect you to resources and may pay for classes. Once abroad, reach out to co-workers, neighbours and community groups to keep learning from authentic sources and help you settle in.

Work assignment challenges

Challenge: Due to technological advances and culturally different work mindsets, it can be common for employers and colleagues to require 24/7 availability. Often the assignment involves tight deadlines and high expectations for progress despite the learning curve. It’s hard to feel confident and relaxed if your work productivity is in question or your personal time isn’t respected.

Solution: Ideally, you should discuss expectations with your employer and set boundaries to preserve some down time for yourself and your family. If the pressure builds and you’re not able to address it with your employer, find out if your employee assistance program or international health benefits include mental health services and resources. Confidential counselling sessions can help you express your frustration and teach you coping techniques to deal with it.

Loss of family and friends support network

Challenge: Until they’re away expats often don’t realise how much they depend on their network of family and friends for daily support, venting, and advice. Being detached from both your normal routines and your support system can be much more challenging than you might expect, making you more likely to choose ineffective or detrimental coping behaviors.

Solution: Set up regular face-to-face times with your loved ones and friends back home using Skype or other technologies. Keeping time zones in mind, identify a few people who wouldn’t mind being your frequent sounding board through texting, social media messaging or phone calls. And check with your employer or international health benefits provider to see if they offer virtual health counseling — a terrific way to have someone to talk with who understands your culture, speaks your language and is available when it’s most convenient to you.

Spouse unable to find work

Challenge: “Where you go, I go” works well in most cases — except when a couple moves abroad for one spouse’s assignment and the other has difficulty finding work in the right field, or at all. And that can be compounded if the spouse has trouble making friends or finding a sense of purpose through volunteer work or other activities. This can cause friction in the marriage and put the non-working spouse at higher risk of depression.

Solution: Ask your employer for resources to connect your spouse to job opportunities and/or volunteer or other activities to pursue if jobs aren’t available. Those counseling sessions offered by your employee assistance program are usually available to your spouse as well, helping address feelings of being “trapped” or “stuck” by circumstances.

Missing out on activities at home

Challenge: Thanks to prevalence of social media in our lives, “FOMO” (fear of missing out) has become a real source of frustration for those who can’t participate in all the fun activities they see their friends posting about online. For expatriates, that sense of isolation doubles and can bring mental health issues to the forefront.

Solution: Developing relationships outside of work while abroad can be a key way to make this pressure point sting a little less. Create needed work/life balance by scheduling activities to enjoy by yourself, with your family, with newfound friends and even strangers (otherwise known as friends you haven’t met yet!). Find out where you can pursue your favorite hobbies in your location — or step outside your comfort zone and try some new ones. Making a rich, well-rounded life abroad can go a long way toward making up for what you’re missing out on at home.

For people considering moving abroad, our content library has articles on some of the key issues expatriates experience and how best to handle them. We regularly provide pre-trip planning advice to members on assignment around occupational health and how to ensure assignment success. Existing Aetna International members can also access our health library for specific information on different medical conditions and disease information. To find out more about Aetna International private medical insurance plans and pre-trip planning support services, speak to one of our expert sales consultants.

For further reading on being prepared for an overseas move, we recommend:

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2 Pioneering Change: Understanding Health & Healthcare for Glob­ally Mobile & High Net Worth Local Populations. Aetna International, October 2016.