A rare privilege
Having the chance to be expatriated by a large organisation is a privilege. The opportunities to grow professionally and personally are almost unlimited… you are exposed to other cultures and realities… you get to travel the world… and the financial rewards are usually pretty enticing.
It’s a privilege to be a corporate expatriate
I was a corporate expatriate for 20+ years. I worked in 6 countries, moved house 12 times, and clocked thousands of miles traveling around the world. I am incredibly grateful for the opportunities expatriation has given me and my family. And yet, thriving as a corporate expatriate over the years wasn’t always easy.
A privilege with some challenges
Expatriation brings with it many additional pressures to add to those usually felt by busy people with corporate careers. One interesting study conducted in 2007 by ORC Worldwide, an expert in international work assignments, highlighted the key pressure points contributing to mental health issues for expatriates:
- Almost two-thirds of expatriates felt a lot of pressure from their job.
- Almost half feel stressed because they couldn’t be part of what was happening back home.
- 40% faced challenges with the loss of their support network and integration at their host country.
As I found out personally the hard way, these pressure points continue to be relevant today. Unless you do something to manage them, they will build up over time until they overwhelm you. Over the years I built my own best practices to thriving as a corporate expatriate. Perhaps they can help you too.
Accept that transitions are difficult
Often the most difficult time in an expatriation is up-rooting and re-rooting yourself. On average, I think it’s taken me and my family 9 months to settle in at a new location. Throughout each of these settling-in periods, my energy and positivity fluctuated wildly at the mercy of all the things I was trying, not always successfully, the juggle. Thriving as a corporate expatriate is very much about managing your own expectations, so remember to be even more compassionate with yourself during this initial period than you usually would be.
More pragmatically, a good piece of advice to facilitate the transition to a new location is to get the practicalities dealt with early on. Start by doing as much research as you can on important matters such as housing, schooling, immigration, taxation and banking. Leverage any resources you have access to, in particular of course third-parties or local people designated to support you by the organisation expatriating you. These matters tend to be boring and bureaucratic, but a rash decision early on can dictate a miserable expatriate life for years after.
If you have to compromise, for example having a longer commute to work so you can live at a location that is more amenable to your family, make sure the compromise is understood and accepted by all. Debate options within your family. Be sure to rationalize the conclusion. Know what you are getting yourself into!
Understand your drivers
Knowing what you want is also an important component of thriving as a corporate expatriate. You probably had some clear reason when you accepted your assignment. Perhaps you were driven by career advancement… or financial rewards… or a desire to expand your horizons… or something else. In my case, coming from a multinational family I felt that moving around the world was just the ‘normal’ thing to do. You might even reach the point when continuing as an expatriate appears to be the only reasonable option – you will have become a career expatriate.
Career? Money? Personal growth? What’s your driver?
Your drivers will probably change throughout your time as an expatriate, and it’s important you take the time to reflect and acknowledge them. Be honest with yourself and those impacted by your decisions. Say for example that your driver remains career advancement – well then perhaps accepting it fully and discussing it with people close to you will make your day-to-day decisions on prioritization less prone to second guessing.
Get your priorities right
No matter what your expatriation drivers, some aspects of your life will always be more important. First and foremost of course is your own health… physical and mental. An unhealthy lifestyle will sooner or later catch up with you. To put it bluntly, nothing connected to your expatriation should be worth driving yourself into an early grave.
Your health and your family are always your top priorities
Whatever your personal situation, you family is important. Obviously if you have children or other dependents you need to create an environment in which they can thrive. An unhappy or unsupportive family will make it very hard for you to succeed, let alone feel happy. Even if you are expatriating alone, your family back home will continue to be part of your life. So find time for them in your busy schedule.
Don’t dwell on the past
Whether or not your expatriation meets your expectations, thriving as a corporate expatriate will be easier if your life elsewhere is really behind you. While thinking that the “grass is greener” under other circumstances is a common human perception, it is not going to help you feel happier. Seek to find a balance between living life to its fullest at your host location, while staying connected with family and friends back home. Reflecting often on how you spend your free time is a good exercise to help with this balancing act.
By the way, if your host location is an tourist hotspot, it’s likely you will get a lot of visitors from back home. Of course you should welcome them, but remember they now live in a different world to yours. If having visitors makes you feel homesick, consider limiting how many you have – I found this to be particularly important in the early stages of relocating.
Establish a local support network
Perhaps the most difficult challenge when moving somewhere new is having to create a new support network from scratch. No matter how resilient you and your family may be, having people around you who can help or simply relate to what you are going through is key to thriving as a corporate expatriate. Many places around the world have established expatriate communities, and I’ve found that expatriates are generally very welcoming and supportive of other expatriates. Expatriate associations are always a good way to meet new people quickly and comfortably, so be sure to sign up.
Unless you want to live in an expatriate bubble, finding ways to connect with local people is also a great way to integrate. And if you are in a country with a completely different culture from your own, you will benefit also from meeting people with very different life experiences and perspectives to your own.
A practical aspect of establishing a support network is deciding where to live. It might sound amazing to live on a golf course, but if most of the people you can relate to live the other side of town you are setting yourself up for failure. I’ve found that living at a place where people you can chat with are only a few moments’ walk away is ideal. Choose wisely!
Get to know your host country
It can be daunting to be separated from an environment you know well and in which you know how to live. While the cultural shock associated to a move can be felt even by the most seasoned of expatriates, it doesn’t need to last too long. I’ve found that the best way to shorten your cultural shock period is to get to know your host country. Not only from a practical perspective to get by, equally from an aesthetic perspective of appreciating diversity.
Show you are proud to live in your host country
Try to learn the language of the country you live in, even if you don’t think you have the time or the mindset. Don’t aim to be fluent, aim to understand enough of the language to be self-sufficient. Being able to do your own grocery shopping… order your food at a restaurant… chat about the weather… will do wonders for your self-confidence.
Learning about your host country’s culture and history will not only be interesting, it will create opportunities to connect with local people. Take the opportunity to travel around your host country, experience things you might otherwise not even know about, promote what you see with your friends back home. Sometimes it helps to pick a topic: I really enjoy trying different cuisines and wine tasting, so I made it an ongoing mission to experience local food and get to know local grape varieties.
It’s a natural human tendency to overdramatize one’s own problems. At difficult moments, try to remember this: no matter how challenging thriving as a corporate expatriate may appear, you are still hugely privileged to be one. So accept that things won’t always go your way, and enjoy what you have. Take the time to savour the experiences and connections with other people that come your way precisely because you live abroad.
Foster your feeling of gratitude by reflecting often on how much you have learnt over the years as an expatriate. Reflect on how eye-opening and soul-enriching your life is. Show your feelings of gratitude by helping other expatriates adapt. Or find ways to give back to the local community in which you live. Keep a gratitude journal! As the saying goes, “gratitude turns what we have into enough.”
Back to thriving as a corporate expatriate
I found that the secret to finding balance as a corporate expatriate was to wholeheartedly live the experience of being wherever I was. Without neglecting family and friends who were elsewhere, I made the most of the day-to-day opportunities of being expatriated. I reflected often on how lucky I was, and even when I felt overwhelmed by challenges, I tried to focus on the positive elements of living abroad.
The approach worked for me anyway! So what are you going to do to thrive as a corporate expatriate?
Find this article interesting? Read more of my conscious living stories.