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How to boost resilience as an expat  

01 February 2022

Numerous studies have found that the workplace is the most significant source of stress for many people. In the US in 2018, 83% of adult Americans reported experiencing work related stress. There are equally concerning statistics in the UK, in 2020 almost 80% of employees regularly experienced stress at work, 20% more than in 2018. The situation is much the same in the expat hub of Singapore, where almost 20% of the healthcare budget is spent on stress related illnesses

In light of statistics like these, it is little wonder that resilience, the ability to bounce back from adversity, is amongst the world economic forum’s list of top 10 skills for the future of work. Resilience is even more important as an expat. You are likely to face adversity from several sources as you move and adjust to life away from home. Some typical causes of expat stress include:

  • Making the decision to move overseas
  • Family concerns about the move
  • Everything that needs to be done prior and during the move
  • Finding accommodation, schools etc. in your new home
  • Culture shock as you adjust to overseas life
  • Learning a new language under pressure
  • Pressure from your employer to show results
  • Knowing when it is time to go home


Although many of us know what resilience is and why we need it, it can be trickier to understand how to become more resilient. Is there a class you can take? Well, there are, but there are also things you can do in everyday life to help improve your ability to overcome expat difficulties.

Emotional intelligence [EI] is not one specific thing, rather it is a set of skills and behaviours that help us understand our own feelings and those of the people around us. Our emotional intelligence is made up of four components:

1.    Self-awareness: understanding our own emotions and the impact they have on others. This is the foundation of EI.

2.    Self-regulation: once we understand our emotions, self-regulation is the ability to manage them.

3.    Social-awareness: is the ability to understand other people’s emotions. A key element of this is empathy. 

4.    Social skills: essential for great expats, social skills are our ability to influence people, manage conflict and build and maintain healthy relationships in all areas of your life. 


EI is useful in stressful situations as it helps us to:

  • Understand the links between our emotions and behaviour
  • Remain calm in stressful situations 
  • Handle difficult people well. 


Begin to grow your emotional intelligence with self-reflection and mindfulness. Spend a few minutes every day naming your emotions in a diary. Knowing when you are feeling frustrated, anxious or happy can help you respond rather than react to your feelings in a healthier way. 


Understanding other people’s feelings is another important element of EI . Improve your empathy at work by employing active listening, asking questions and avoiding judgements or assumptions. Remember, although you may have experienced a similar event to a colleague, your set of circumstances may be vastly different to theirs. 

By looking on the bright side at work you are more likely to adapt to adversity and improve how you are viewed in the workplace. This is especially important if the goal of your expat assignment is to instigate change. It is easier to keep colleagues onside with a positive attitude, even when times are tough. 


Like every element of resilience in the workplace, building a positive attitude will require some work. Some practical ways to improve positivity include:

  • Plan your day: having a structure to your day makes it more likely you will achieve your goals and maintain a positive mindset. Work out when you are most productive and schedule your most challenging tasks for that time. Plan breaks and snacks to maintain your effectiveness. Leave simpler tasks to times when you find it more difficult to concentrate, first thing in the morning or last thing in the evening. 
  • Self-monitor negativity: feeling agitated or complaining to a colleague? Instead of allowing a situation to overwhelm you, consider what the root cause of the problem might be and what can you do to address it? 
  • Establish high points: work high points into your day, week and month whether it is meeting a colleague for lunch or achieving a particularly challenging goal. Having something to celebrate will help you maintain positivity.
  • Fill your mind with positivity: chances are you read, listen or watch content to improve your ability to do your job. Include content on positive psychology to help focus on the silver lining instead of the cloud. 
In so far as it is possible, create specific times in the day to complete similar work-related activities. In essence  minimise context switching. Try to complete tasks like email, strategy or focus work in batches rather than jumping from one to the other. This is useful because it helps you maintain concentration, so you achieve more which helps with focus and positivity. 

Another useful way to improve your resilience as an expat is to cultivate compassion towards yourself and your colleagues. Accept that things will go wrong, there will be misunderstandings and mistakes. Research by UC Berkeley in the US showed compassion increases positive emotions, creates positive working relationships and increases co-operation. 


Rewire your brain for resilience in the workplace by practicing self-compassion. This can often be more difficult than being compassionate to others, but it is equally important. An exercise from resilience expert Linda Graham to start being more compassionate towards ourselves is to:

1.    Notice a difficult emotion, anxiety, worry, irritation or shame, pause for a moment and put your hand on your heart. This action releases oxytocin a hormone that helps build safety and trust.

2.    Empathize with what you are feeling by saying something kind like ‘this is upsetting’ or ‘this is hard’ or a similar phrase that feels right to you.

3.    Then say:

  • ‘May I be kind to myself in this moment’
  • ‘May I accept this moment as it is’
  • ‘May I accept myself as I am at this moment’
  • ‘May I give myself all the compassion I need'

4.    Repeat this until the compassion and kindness towards yourself are stronger than the original emotion.


These are just some of our suggestions for boosting resilience as an expat. For more suggestions discover our expert tips on Cultivating Resilience as an Expat by international happiness expert and author of “How to be Happy” Vanessa King. 


If you are looking for even more information on resilience inside and outside of the working world, there are a huge number of Ted talks that could help including:
Discover how Raphael Rose’s research showed failure is essential in the cultivation of resilience. This may be particularly relevant if you are finding the expat experience particularly difficult. 
Discover a different view on resilience from open water swimmer Bhakti Sharma.
Discover how Lucy Hone used her knowledge as a resilience expert to survive an unimaginable tragedy in her own life. What she learned along the way and the three elements you can apply to your life as an expat.