By Dr Jill Dunbar, Clinical Psychologist & Regular Contributor
The idea of working abroad can conjure up all sorts of images. For me, my first thought is sitting on a beautiful beach, perhaps in Thailand, under a palm tree, tapping away on my laptop and simultaneously sipping a coconut. Sounds great! It’s ironic since I do, in fact, work abroad, and let me tell you that my day is nothing like this whatsoever! Yet still this is the image my mind will produce and I doubt that I am alone in this.
With the increase in remote working over the last two years, there has been a significant rise in people interested in working abroad. The realisation that many jobs can be done remotely presents the exciting possibility that perhaps people could uproot their lives and follow dreams of living in a city or country that they have always wanted to.
I have been living and working abroad for just over two years now and wanted to share some my reflections on the opportunities and the challenges which arise in doing so. I also want to share some tips for those of you seriously considering making this move and hope that this can be of some benefit in helping with the adjustment. This is intended to be suitable for anyone undertaking any occupation in any country.
The Benefits and Opportunities
Everyone will have different motivations for moving and working abroad. These may range from a desire for an improvement in quality of life, there may be financial benefits to do doing so, or they may be more driven by a sense of adventure and breaking up routine. There is no doubt that moving abroad can more often than not provide multiple benefits and opportunities through doing so. These are some of my favourites so far:
New perspectives. Seeing how things are done in a new country and in a new culture really does expand your mind and widen your ability to take new perspectives, both in the way that you work, and in a more general approach to life.
New opportunities. Moving outside of your comfort zone opens you up to people and challenges that you may have never heard of before. Also taking the decision to make a huge change once will build your confidence to perhaps take on these new opportunities.
Improved communication skills. Working in a country where you are not fluent in the language quickly develops your communication in a multidimensional way. You are more aware of non-verbals and tone, and it also forces you to be more clear and direct with your communication. It can also slow down your immediate reactions to what is being said and encourage you to focus more on the intentions of what is being said rather than the specific content.
Learn about a new culture. Working abroad is an incredible opportunity to truly learn about a new culture, not just on the surface level that vacations give you, but on a deeper level, seeing and understanding the true day to day living, and trying to incorporate some of this into your own life.
Learn about self. Moving and working abroad will show you your adaptability, resilience and ability to grow and learn at a fast pace through necessity. It will force you to work under pressure and see how strong you can be. Hold an open and curious mind about yourself and notice what you find challenging and what you find surprisingly natural.
Of course it would be unrealistic to think that moving to a new country would be without its challenges. Challenges are an inevitable part of the process and without them we would also lack the opportunities which they can lead to. These are some of the challenges which `i feel are worth taking some time to consider:
Isolation and lack of support network. Relationships take time to build and grow. If you are moving abroad you will likely be saying goodbye to a lot of your support network, and while you can of course keep in touch, the distance between you and your village can feel quite isolating at first. Know that this is a normal feeling and try to say yes to opportunities to build new relationships with others.
Cultural differences and frustrations. Cultural differences are inevitable and can feel frustrating at times. Many of us have spent our lives living one way with all of our habits and assumptions and now we are bombarded with everybody doing things slightly different to our instincts. This generally can be completely manageable with an open mind and good spirit, however after a tough day, on a busy commute when you do not feel your best, sometimes differences can feel stark and frustrating. Know this is normal to feel like this sometimes and stay reflective of yourself and your feelings.
Multiple changes at once. It may be that you end up moving to a new country, into a new home and starting a new job all at the same time. One of these transitions is challenging in itself and takes time to adjust to, so doing all of them at once can take an emotional toll on us. Give yourself time to adjust and be gentle with yourself.
High expectations. This is in relation to both your expectations of your new lifestyle and also of your self. We often hold dreamy pictures of what life might look like in another country however forget that all working routines may involve many mundane aspects such as a city commute, doing the weekly shop, paying bills, and normal mood fluctuations. We can also feel pressure that we should be enjoying every minute of our new lives but this is simply not realistic. Try to keep your expectations realistic and remember that a range of emotions and motivation is normal in any situation.
Tips for healthy adjustment
Finally, I want to share some tips that I hope will make for a smoother transition and adjustment to your new country of work.
1. Keep an open mind. We have acknowledged that cultural differences are an inevitability and so try to enter into situations with an open mind and a genuine curiosity about how things are done in different places. Sometimes working habits or assumptions may seem counter intuitive but hold awareness that your own habits and instincts may seem jarring to others. You may consider yourself an open minded person naturally, however sometimes maintaining this open mindedness will require active effort, especially after a long working day or in the wake of looming deadlines.
2. Make your home comfortable. Take time to invest in your home to ensure that it is a welcoming and relaxing place for you to come back to at the end of the day. Ensure that you have comforts personal to you. If you are working remotely and work from your home, ensure that you are able to have some physical boundaries between where you do the majority of your work and where you switch off at the end of the working day.
3. Build a routine. We are creatures of habit and routine makes us instinctively feel safe and secure. Building a good routine, particularly at times of stress, change and transition can help us adjust and settle more quickly.
4. Research your new working culture. Try to build a good understanding of what to expect in your new working culture. Don’t make assumptions that office dynamics will be the same or that hierarchies will work as you expect. Again, keep an open mind a maintain a respectful curiosity as to the differences between where you have come from and where you are now.
5. Form relationships outside your colleagues. While your new workplace will be an excellent place to build new relationships in your new home, try to also cultivate relationships outside of your working place. It is important to be able to maintain boundaries between work and home life and these boundaries can be impacted by who is in your social circle. Explore other opportunities to meet new people to ensure your life has various layers and outlets for stress.
6. Keep a journal/document your progress. It can be easy to forget just how far you have come in adjusting to a completely new culture and set of circumstances. It can be a helpful strategy, particularly in the early stages of adjustment, to note down important things you have learned, steps you have taken, and your first times for doing things. It is then fun to look back on all the things you have learned and see what has become second nature already compared to your first day in a new country.
7. Check in with yourself. There will be days that you do not enjoy and that you feel down. This is an inevitable part of life, and can feel particularly magnified when you are in a new place. Take time to reflect on why you made the choice to make your move, what your hopes and intentions were for this chapter, and see if your reasons for moving are being actualised. It always helps to have a reminder of what your overall goals were for moving and investing some time into feeling like you have been able to make your dreams a reality. Take some time to reflect on the growth you have achieved and congratulate yourself for taking the risk!