Expat Burnout: what is it and how to overcome it?

04 November 2021

It is not surprising that over the last year and a half, more employees than ever have been experiencing burnout in one form or another. The world has battled against the first pandemic in a century. The resulting lockdowns, restrictions in movements and requirements to isolate has meant many people are missing out on that most basic of needs, human connection. 

Professionally, you may have transitioned from working in social, office environments to remote working virtually overnight. Juggling work with the demands of family life took a toll. 
Like many businesses, yours may have had to change their trajectory for 2020 and into 2021 resulting in additional work and the dangers of presenteeism. A study conducted in the UK during lockdown showed that almost half of employees felt pressure to be ‘present’ and almost one quarter to prove that they are working every day. 
Although many of these pressures may be easing, they may have had a cumulative impact. 
Expats are at particular risk of burnout given the isolation from family and friends. Even when restrictions begin to ease, the move to a hybrid environment may have unexpected consequences for assignments. 
Before we delve into how to overcome expat burnout, it’s useful to understand what it is. Burnout is a term used to describe a form of exhaustion, first identified in the 1970s. It is most often related to work. It often manifests as a state of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion. 
Burnout is particularly prevalent in work cultures or professions where long hours and few holidays are the norm. Although it is difficult to find recent studies on expat burnout related to work, there are indications that expats may be more susceptible to ‘pandemic fatigue’ as they are dealing with restrictions while away from the support of family and friends.  
Not only are these statistics worrying for the individuals involved but also for wider business. The World Economic Forum estimates burnout costs the global economy £255 billion in lost productivity and sick leave. 
In many instances yes, expat burnout is a syndrome usually linked to work whereas expat depression is a mental illness likely to impact every aspect of your life. Although the exhaustion from burnout may prevent you from partaking in life outside of work in the way you usually would. If you find these feelings ease over the weekend or if you take time off work, then you may have burnout.
Overcoming expat burnout is not easy but it is most certainly worth it for yourself and your assignment. If you are pushing yourself through burnout, chances are you are not as creative, productive or enthusiastic about solving the problem that is at the heart of your assignment. 
There are several strategies to help overcome burnout including:

If you are on your first assignment or new to a particular culture, you may feel you have a lot to learn and so begin a cycle of saying yes to every opportunity that manifests itself. If you think this has been a contributory factor to your burnout, take some time to learn how to say no, without offending people. This will allow you to prioritise what is important without stretching yourself too far. Some easy ways to say no politely include:

  • “Unfortunately I have too much in my schedule this week"
  • “How about you try it on your own first and I’ll assist if needed?”
  • “How thoughtful of you to ask but it won’t work out this time”

Self-care is going to be different for everyone. It is at its essence doing the things you need to do to stay physically and mentally well. Acts of self-care include but are not limited to:

  • Eating a healthy diet
  • Regular exercise
  • Making time to relax
  • Making time to connect with others
  • Making time for yourself
  • Making time to do the things you enjoy
If you are struggling, get in touch with your HR department. They may be able to provide you with details of an expat assistance programme that provides professional support.
This can feel counter intuitive, especially if you feel you haven’t been as productive as you should be but taking a break from work is a helpful way to overcome burnout. While you are off try to do things you enjoy and get outside as much as possible. Reconnect with nature, even if it would not be your first choice. Being outside has been shown to boost energy, enhance creativity and restore focus. 
Although the internet has revolutionised the way we work, constant connection does not provide us with enough time to switch off. Dedicate some time each day to step away from your computer, put your phone away and avoid checking social media. Ideally stay away from screens for the two hours before you go to sleep. It will really improve the amount and quality of the rest you get.
When you were a child were there creative things you enjoyed? It may have been art, crafting, dance or playing music. If you have lost touch with these things, consider reconnecting. If nothing springs to mind, try something new. Creative hobbies have been shown to help us manage stress, they are good for our brain and provide a reason to take a break from work. 

It is estimated the average adult requires 7-8 hours of quality sleep a night. If you are not getting this, conduct a sleep audit to understand why not? If you have children, you may be good at building a good sleep routine for them but what about yourself? We all benefit from a bedtime routine. Some simple steps to follow include:

  • Getting up at the same time every day [yes even at weekends]
  • Allowing screen free wind down time of at least 30 minutes
  • Try relaxation methods like meditation
  • Wind down in a dimly lit room
  • Don’t toss and turn if you can’t sleep, get up and stretch, read or another calming activity until you feel tired. 

There is no doubt we are living through a time where many of us are facing challenges personally and professionally we may never have encountered before. If you feel it is becoming too much and you are suffering from burnout, act now. Taking time to heal will pay dividends in the overall success of your assignment.