Expat life – that exciting, exotic, idyllic lifestyle, which lets you escape all the trials and tribulations of the normal nine-to-five. Well, packing up your troubles in an old kit bag and jetting away from it all might not be as easy as you thought.Expat living is not to be confused with a holiday. Living and working overseas come with all the usual drags of grown-up life. There are still bills to pay, laundry to do and boring meetings to attend, but now you have to learn how to do it in another language, navigating unfamiliar processes and paperwork.
A great many expats go into management or highly technical roles, taking responsibility and the long working hours that go with it. It can be difficult for expats to strike the right work-life balance, making the most of a unique opportunity to explore another culture.
It’s all too common for expats to dedicate themselves to the job at hand, neglecting both physical and mental health. It’s easy to skip a meal or two and push a late night at the office, but doing this frequently is likely to impact your emotional and bodily well-being.
Aetna International provides health benefits and services, and reports that just six percent of expats worry about mental health issues before relocating. However, the same survey reports a rise in mental health challenges from expats around the world. Europe, for example, saw a 30 percent increase between 2014 and 2016. The study showed that instances of depression saw a 50 percent increase, with anxiety climbing nearly 30 percent. Women between 30 and 49 years old are the most likely to seek treatment.
Living overseas usually means living away from familiar places and faces. Far from home, it is easy to see why expats are especially vulnerable to mental health problems. Even bringing immediate family with you is not a sure-fire cure, as such a move can place added concerns and stress on existing relationships.
That’s not to say that expat-life is a ticket to woe and ill-health! Some 69 percent of expats rate their health as good or very good, with only 58 percent of non-expats reporting the same in a Movehub poll.
However, when things go wrong for expats, they can go wrong faster than they might do at home, leaving them isolated and confused by an unfamiliar healthcare system.
We’ve prepared some top tips for health and happiness as an expat, with an emphasis on prevention, but being ready for a cure if needed.
Stock up on medicines
Some countries have surprisingly strict restrictions on common drugs. Research ahead of time to ensure you can get access to any medication you rely on.
Even if you can, try to take some extras with you, just in case it takes time to set up your new supply. However, do also double-check the customs restrictions to ensure you don’t bring in too much of any given medication.
Get a guide
Culture shock is a leading factor in feelings of isolation and anxiety. Having a guide with local knowledge to help you adjust is invaluable.
Reaching out to expats who are already in country, or asking workmates for advice will help you get settled in quicker and mean you can explore your exciting new culture.
Eat well, not fast
A busy lifestyle can all too often turn into an unhealthy one. Grabbing food on the go whilst running between meetings makes it difficult to maintain a balanced diet.
Cooking at home is a great way to save money and ensure you eat at least one well-balanced meal a day. Cooking extra for lunch the next day saves even more money.
Join a club
Get out and meet people; other expats, people with whom you share interests, or local people who want to practice their English.
Find people who enjoy the same things as you and get chatting. You’ll make friends and find that this strange new world isn’t entirely alien after all.
Get some exercise
Always good advice. Even short, regular runs are good for your heart and mental health.
Committing a few hours a week to your own fitness also allows you to switch off from the working world, giving your brain time to process the mad onrush of information.
Get the right medical cover for you
A great many expat contracts will come with medical insurance as part of the package. This doesn’t mean your cover can’t be tailored to you.
If you have pre-existing conditions or you’ll need glasses or dental work during your time overseas, make sure you are covered. The financial cost of such treatment can be enough that you are tempted to struggle on, leading to bigger problems for the future.
Some medications may not be covered by the insurance, putting you in a difficult position. Ask about paying additional premiums for additional services.
Keep in touch
Stay in contact with those back home. Life will carry on without you there, but that doesn’t mean you need to be left out.
Make the most of video calls and online chats to have genuine conversations with those who matter to you. Even though they are far away, they will still care about you and you them.
Thanks to time differences and busy lives, you may need to book these chats in advance. Don’t cancel them. Put time aside to keep in touch with those who know you best.
Don’t underestimate the power of a friendly face. Especially if you can trust that face to be a shoulder to cry on when required.
Put the effort into getting to know people. You never know when you may need someone to lean on, or vice-versa. Just knowing there is someone out there who cares can be just the boost you need.
Look after mind, body and soul
Remember, you are not just your body. You have to monitor your mind, body and soul, ensuring each is given the exercise and care it needs.
All the gym sessions in the world can’t fix a serious problem with your emotional state or feelings of loneliness. It may help to keep a diary, tracking what triggers down days and what boosts your mood. If you feel like you might need help, don’t be afraid to ask for it, from a doctor or a friend.
It’s OK to quit
Expat life is not one-size-fits all. You may find yourself in a job, a company or even an entire country that just doesn’t work for you. And that’s OK.
Expats report that when anxiety runs rampant, they feel trapped in a situation they can’t control, with no lifeline or friendly faces to help them out.
If you are working for a company that has transferred you overseas, go talk to them. If you are not happy in your situation, you won’t be able to deliver what they need you to. So talk to them and come up with a compromise.
You don’t need to resign and come home immediately. You may be able to find ways of restructuring the role, or of getting more support. If this still doesn’t work, see about getting posted back to your home country.
A great many expat contracts have a firm end-date, whether this be for business reasons or the visa you are on. However, if you cannot make it to this end date, don’t be afraid of saying so.
How do you maintain a healthy lifestyle abroad? Share your thoughts in the comments below, or answer the questions here to be featured in an interview!