Expats and COVID 19 – Five Steps To Avoid Burn Out
By Angie Weinberger, Global Mobility Coach
Angie Weinberger – A Personal Account of COVID 19 Plus Tips For Expats
During the height of the pandemic my mother could not find yeast in Germany, yet in Zurich although demand for certain items was higher than during “normal times”, there were no real shortages. I bought five packs of dry yeast and posted them to my mother – the man at the Post Office laughed when I told him what was in my little parcel as the postage exceeded the value of the contents! However, I was so happy that I could help my mother with this small gesture.
At this point it dawned on me that I had become an “accidental expat”. As an expert in Global Mobility and having lived so close to “home” (ie Germany) for the past 11 years, working either abroad or with expats for most of my professional life, it took a virus to turn me into an expat. I wasn’t able to “go home” to the country of my passport. I felt that expat pain. Maybe you were stuck too? Cut off physically from friends and family abroad? Having been used to travelling wherever you pleased, this year was different. The planes stopped and so did our lives to a certain extent. And things will continue to be different for some while to come, as we prepare ourselves for a “new normal”.
There is a lot I have to be grateful for. I was lucky enough to survive catching COVID19. I didn’t have to endure the pain of missing out on the funeral of a loved one. The virus has taught us all to be resilient but when will this pandemic really end? And how will we live when we get out of it? When will our children catch up on their schooling? What will happen next? A second wave? Civil War? Financial crisis?
There are so many questions and whilst we have been busy taking care of those around us, maybe we have neglected ourselves?
Safety Stops in A Crisis
Expats can easily burn out in a crisis. Whenever I’m close to burning out or feeling low in energy I use my “diving safety stop” method. Just as when you are diving to the surface you sit at a certain level (around 3 meters below the surface) for five minutes to enable the nitrogen to get out of your body, before continuing, I do something similar. A diver knows he always needs sufficient oxygen to get back to the surface and would never end up at a depth of 30 m with no reserves. So why do expats sometimes live their lives with reserves at dangerously low levels? Why do we all have to be superheroes?
My diving experience helped me with COVID-19. Sometimes it felt like I was breathing through an oxygen mask and had too much nitrogen in my blood. I often felt a slight dizziness. However, I survived without artificial support by using my “safety stop” before I burned out completely. I did end up in hospital, but I received good treatment and recovered.
Why Expats Are More Prone To Mental Health Issues
Expats are often more resilient than their fellow colleagues who are working in their own country. However, they are also more prone to suffering from mental health issues. I see four main reasons:
- Expats often don’t have the same social support network here or their friendships are too new to ask for a lot of personal support.
- Expats tend to identify themselves strongly with their work and often neglect other parts of their lives in order to perform better. They often shrug when I ask them about their hobbies.
- Expats are in the life phase of “kings and queens”, they have obligations towards their children, and their parents are in an age group where they often need support.
- In the first year of assignment expats often experience cultural and adjustment issues. Often this is actually stress. In order to relax, alcohol, soft drugs, and medication are often overused on assignment, particularly by single expats.
5 Ways To Regain Your Equilibrium
The recent crisis has magnified any issues that people may have had. Technology can keep you in contact, but it’s not the same as a hug from a friend or having coffee with your mother. Indeed how many people ended up working longer hours during ”home office” than before? On top of that there were the kids, the cooking and cleaning to take care of. Tasks you would have outsourced to others “pre-corona”. Even though things have eased up and are getting closer to normal, you may still feel close to burning out, depressed or more anxious than usual. If that is the case, consider these 5 suggestions to regain your strength and equilibrium.
1 – Take a Whole Weekend Off and Go Offline
We tend to spend too much time in front of screens. Going offline for a whole weekend is difficult but it can help you focus on yourself again. Plan an “offline challenge” with your partner and children. Make a list of suggestions for things to do together and everyone should have at least an hour to themselves every day. Include light exercise such as a hike in the woods for the whole family. Why not explore and discover your local neighbourhood?
2 – Write down 25 Priorities
What struck me in this crisis was that priorities changed so quickly. Borders closed, postal services were slower than usual, restaurants reinvented themselves as takeaways but there were so many personal and professional tasks I needed to get done. I made a list of the personal things I wanted to do and created a flipchart with post-it notes for prioritising my work tasks. Being able to see a visual representation of your priorities which you can tick off really helps. Make it a fun activity and ask your kids to help. Whatever you do, stop at 25 as you want to be able to tick them all off by Friday.
3 – Talk to all Your Family Members About Your Assignment
After all the changes that have happened in the workplace, you might wonder if your assignment is still on the track. Is your host country still where you want to be – and do they still need you? Discuss this with your family. However, this may also be a time when you feel particularly grateful for being in Switzerland, one of the safest places in the world during this pandemic. Write down what you appreciate about it and make sure to meet up with those you have missed during Lockdown.
4 – If your Pain Persists Seek Professional Help
If you feel exhausted but mentally stable, relaxation methods such as listening to classical music while working, or practicing Feldenkreis breathing exercisesby @ryannagy may help. You could also try working through Progressive Muscle Relaxation or other YouTube videos such as my short video which shows you how to start.
If, however, you are constantly nervous, angry, irritable or feel like crying, you should see a doctor. There are good short-term therapies building on the concepts of Steve de Shazer.These are geared towards crisis situations and dealing with crisis situations. Often they are based on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and go for a maximum of 10 sessions. You can also check if your employer offers Employee Assistance Programs or support through companies like International SOS.
5 – Try to Establish Routines and Rituals
In times of crisis, routines and rituals often help. For example, you could allow yourself one hour of meditation or creative work in the morning. Many of my clients work better when they go for a run or walk early in the morning, others love an hour of gardening, creative writing or playing the piano. I also recommend that you set your alarm for certain times to mark the beginning and end of the work day. Set the alarm for break times and particularly for your lunch so that you don’t work through it. Now that the situation is more relaxed, you can also set up lunch appointments again. It’s not only good for getting out of the house, it also helps to build your professional relationships.
After weeks of working from home the ability to meet people for lunch or coffee feels like a milestone. We need those informal chats with colleagues and friends. We need to get dressed in nice clothes and have a distance between “work” and “leisure”. Otherwise, you may find you lose your fire, your inspiration, you burn out, and you wonder what your purpose in life is.
No matter how strong you are, your health and particularly mental health may have taken a severe toll during the past weeks. If you want to keep in contact, I look forward to welcoming you to my readership here.
Resources and further reading
-> Zurich International Therapists
Weinberger, A. (2020) Podcast “Expat Health” –unpublished, available on request.
Weinberger, A. (2019). The Global Mobility Workbook. Zurich: Global People Transitions.
About the Author
Angie Weinberger has lived and worked in Germany, the UK, India and Australia before moving to Zurich in 2009. With a background in International Business Studies and International Human Resources, Angie has worked in HR with a focus on Global Mobility in global corporations such as AXA-Winterthur, Deutsche Bank, PwC, LafargeHolcim, LGT for the last 20 years. She knows various other industries through her coaching and training mandates.
Angie is an intercultural trainer and Professional Certified Coach. She has been trained in systemic consulting and emergency support for employees too. She is passionate about bringing out the best potential in her clients and on a mission to bring the human touch back into Global Mobility.
Angie is the author of The Global Career Workbook (2016), a self-help job search guide for internationally mobile professionals and The Global Mobility Workbook (2019). She is a guest lecturer at various academic institutions and teaches “Global Mobility” and “Intercultural Management” in Germany, Holland, France and Switzerland. She supports migrants and refugees.
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