How to stay sane as an expat
by Ruth Rusby
Ever wonder why your life felt like such a mess after you became an expat? Now psychologists can explain it scientifically - and, more importantly, help you cope.
The issue of successful migration between cultures is one factor concerning expat workers and their families. Successful adaptation to a new culture can result in greater staff retention.
Jutta König is a psychologist, psychotherapist and career coach with Ede and Partners, Amsterdam and Zeist. She works with both 'inpatriates' and expatriates and other 'migratory birds', as she calls global migrants. Much of her work forms the basis for her PhD on cultural migration.
König uses 'the five pillars of identity' as a useful framework for both examining cultural identity and seeing how this is subsequently affected by migrating to a different culture.
The Five Pillars of Identity
- Physical well-being
- Financial well-being
- Social network
- Work and/or realising full potential
- Beliefs, norms and values
The pillars are shown as five vertical columns supporting the broad lintel of 'identity'. This image allows the identity of an individual to extend outside his or her person towards the surrounding environment. Ms König discovers how the various pillars are influenced as the individual, whether working partner, formerly working spouse or other family member, copes with life in a new environment.
How the pillars affect the employee
For the expat worker assigned overseas, the 'financial pillar' usually remains fairly strong. Health may be affected as the expat adapts to the new environment and is exposed to 'new' local diseases. Their social network collapses completely at least for a while. The 'work pillar' crumbles slightly as initial hurdles are overcome, and generally the 'beliefs, norms and values pillar' remains largely intact.
How the pillars affect the spouse
For the formerly working trailing spouse, things are somewhat different. While the 'health pillar' may crumble slightly due to new surroundings, the 'financial pillar' is shattered. The 'social pillar' also completely collapses, but this time there are no contacts at work to help overcome this. Despite everything, the beliefs, norms and values usually hold up the strongest after the move.
Facing the challenge
The challenge facing working partners, career coaches, HR managers and formerly working trailing spouses is how to minimise the crumbling of these 'pillars of identity' as workers, spouses and family move around the globe.
"Work or any other meaningful social activity is an excellent way of rebuilding crumbling pillars in a new environment," says Jutta König, "as it facilitates the rebuilding of social networks, learning of cultural codes in the new environment, and the construction of the financial pillar."
Recent research from Gothenburg University in Sweden supports this, and shows that working hard to achieve a goal is actually more fulfilling than the temporary high that resulted from achieving it.
Slow but stable
Andrew Brown is a British scientist working for the European Space Agency. He has recently moved to Holland from France and finds his social network is affected the most by his moves.
"It took a long time to build up a network of friends within France," says Brown. "However, after nearly three years we had quite a stable and close group of friends. Here in Holland people seem to come and go much more quickly. We still have more close friends in Toulouse than here."
He finds making the effort to learn the local language one of the best tools for helping settling into a new country and, if you are thinking of staying more than five years, he suggests buying rather than renting property to make you feel "more at home".
A change for the worse
Zelia Muggli is a Portuguese doctor married to a Shell expat worker who has enjoyed assignments in the Middle East and Holland. As a spouse who is no longer able to work in her original profession, she finds that both financially and socially things have deteriorated for her.
"This is mainly because I'm not working," she says. "I used to make most friends through work and related social activities, now I have to invest time and make an effort to socialise."
Muggli finds it frustrating not to have an outlet to apply her proven valuable skills.
"Days feel monotonous without the constant changes in routine my job entails," she explains. "My advice to people in similar situations is to take this as a challenge. Develop new skills and interests, unlock hidden potential and take care of yourself. Try to do something you enjoy and that gives you some reward or income."
Ruth Rusby / Expatica
Ruth Rusby is a freelance writer with first-hand experience of expatriate issues. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Jutta König can be contacted at at email@example.com.