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How to keep a 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 and feeling exhausted, down or physically unwell in the long term.

A life too focussed on work can also put a 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.

Is work-life balance a myth?

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 their new environment, which puts a lot of pressure on both the working expat and their partner or family.

Some believe work-life balance is a myth. 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 recognise 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

A 2006 report by Graham Lowe found that a poor work-life balance can lead to high or chronic stress. 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 from both sides.

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.

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

Here are six handy tips to help you keep a healthy 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.

 Communicate

When you begin to feel overwhelmed at work or in another area of your life, 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.

Be kind and honest

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.

Vivian

Author

Vivian Chiona

Vivian Chiona is the founder and director of Expat Nest (www.expatnest.com), which provides emotional support to expats and their families through online counseling services. A bicultural, multilingual expat with family...

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