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5 Common Global Professional Challenges for Expats

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Expats are tremendous organisational assets

By Sarah Kopinsky – According to Doki, Sasahara and Matsuzaki (2018) expats are tremendous organisational assets who help globalize and expand business success. Global professionals are often highly trained and have an enormous variety of skills which are required for more senior positions. Senior roles are often very demanding on both a professional and personal level. When studied, global professionals often report to enjoy many things about their careers but to also often be impacted by many stressors.

Expats tended to receive less professional support, while required to make far more intricate and sensitive decisions, attain to higher personal demands and continuously adhere to high performance expectancies.

This amalgam of factors, in many cases, formed the base for an experience where stress became constant.  Many expats experienced higher depression and anxiety symptoms which caused their premature return home and sometimes their resignation (Aalto et al., 2014; Wang & Takeuchi, 2007). Shame, stigma and underestimation of this specific career and its strain of its complex psychological stressors, requires attention. When one feels less centred this doesn’t only affect performance, it also takes a toll on cultural tolerance, daily activities, one’s social contacts and it impacts (mental) wellbeing and (significant) relationships.

Many expats experienced higher depression and anxiety symptoms

Room for change

Before arriving in a new country as an expat, multinationals often enjoy a thoroughly planned HR process which include great flights, wonderful accommodations, spots in children’s international schooling systems (when necessary), all-round insurances and that inconsiderable amount of never-ending paperwork. All these relocation aspects are, however, only relatively important, when considering that most common expat issues involve their psychological states and can lead to high employee turnover risk. Here are the 5 biggest challenges faced by most expats (ORC, 2017) and what you can do about them.

#1. Too many challenges of the new Role

Set boundaries where possible with your employer early in the process. It might sound counterproductive, but organisations have a costly task in moving employees and could appreciate some honest feedback regarding your personal and family’s needs. In case you succeed in voicing your personal concerns, emotions, requirements and expectations, HR is usually better able to accommodate and equip you. High turnover rates and unsuccessful projects are preferably avoided by both parties. It also provides one with the opportunity to (re)investigate some areas which leave one feeling conflicted or troubled. Global professionals often enjoy fantastic salaries and benefits, but none of which can compensate for an unexpected loss of health due to an abundance of uncertainty.

You might enjoy the benefits of finding a locally based therapist prior to your arrival who you can reach out to on your new location. You might also find great benefits from consulting with an online therapist if you prefer to speak (and built report) with the same person wherever you go. Whenever you recognise (more frequent) signs of anxiety/ depression or other symptoms, this could prove to be a wonderful outlet and (preventive) self-care tool.

Expats tend to be very dedicated, autonomous and tremendous thinkers who have strong ambitions and incredible perseverance. Discussing one’s boundaries, challenges and indicating when responsibilities have become too much can be hard. However, around 65% of expats probably feel this way. Discussing hardships with employers, close friends or colleagues and learning from one another can work in collectively addressing shared experiences and help in resolving these, but it could also help build the courage to better honour and understand personal limits.

#2. Inability to maintain lifestyle and activities

Plan your lifestyle and create a weekly routine in advance. Find that trainer or gym that offers the classes you love. Find places that sell the food you like and help you stick to your own preferred lifestyle, diet and surroundings. It might seem early, but it feels great to go anywhere and hit the ground running. This one is works best when you make appointments and keep them sacred. If Wednesday night and Saturday morning are your thing when it comes to exercising, then these days should be blocked and reserved spots in your calendar which are taken as seriously as any of your important meetings.

Also take some time to look up some dentists, doctors and specialists’ places. It will give you a sense of calm if you know where to go when needed. Join those charities, foundations or organisations you are passionate about. It can be anything you like that you feel adds something or gives something to others and to the community you are joining. It will help you make quick new connections with locals and to feel useful. Before you know it, your holidays and weekends will be filled with even more wonderful people to have great fun and explore local places with. It is also wonderful to know your talents, experience and hard-earned skills are making a bit of difference wherever you go and contribute to positive social change even if it’s occasionally. Helping others also tends to set a wonderful example for children who- through you- learn and meet different kind of people of all walks of life.

As an expat you will be very tempted to work longer hours, which turn into days -and before you know it- feel like you live in extended weeks. This might sound constructive for your career, but it is not. Having incredible stamina and too high demands is great for a short goal, but not when it comes to having long term job satisfaction. Arthur et al. (1999) claimed that it is beneficial to have more of an abstract perspective when focusing on the elements of time. Especially, on what happens during this certain time period, was found to ultimately define the richness of careers. Although one might desire to follow a set plan and specific goals, global careers often do better in the hands of those who embrace flexibility and experimenting.

As an expat you will be very tempted to work longer hours

Having a more rigid structure better belongs with those personal life areas such as quality time with family, exploring new surroundings, finances, furthering studies and knowledge. Facilitating your quality to pass traditional boundaries and behaviours can specifically pay of in making your decisions and utilising your skills and networks. Your career as an expat and industry could seriously benefit when you use a perspective which honours time and helps you be that someone who has a different approach and brings new energy. The less conflicted you are about the roles of your life, the more productive you can be in less time. Informed choice and focused direction are often very useful in career maintenance and in personal growth. There is virtue in discontinuity in deep curiosity and the desire for ongoing learning. Unconflicted time spending, strength development, and knowing with who to work- will not only help you build networks, become great at your craft and be an asset wherever you go- it will also leave you calmer and in charge about it.

#3. Missing family/friends and their support

This one is hard (especially for expats). Traveling back home for vacation and holidays or having family over could help. It, however, is not the same as having them around a lot. Even when you go to fantastic places, restaurants and know your way around your new habitat, you might still be struck by a terrible sense of homesickness. It is great to have video-conferences, to use WhatsApp and other social network options, but this one just requires a  frequent flyer or airmiles card to be used to the max. Try and reserve a few holidays a year for those special occasions and quality time, if budgeting allows for it.

Simens (2018) teaches parents how to help their children become emotionally resilient in global settings and I find it also applies for adults. Here are some tips:

Voice your emotions and areas of struggle without being afraid to fail. Adopt a new way of relating and use that time where you do see or speak to those you love to really nurture those relationships well. Build wonderful connections with the people around you, teachers, the people who help you maintain your household, the people at your favourite restaurants, your colleagues, friends, friends of friends, there are so many people around you who you can really find wonderful supportive connections with and who will gladly help you out. Teach yourself to be a great optimist and embrace gratitude and curiosity where you feel fear or lack. Some situations will help you to develop more self-compassion. Allowing yourself to feel vulnerable in them can help you to connect differently and from a more real and sincere place.

It is not uncommon for expats to be more sensitive in times when one feel slightly off centred and homesick. It is easy to fall into relentless self-criticism, to identify with other opinions, and to make less wise choices in these circumstances while looking for distraction from emotions in work or other things. Allowing feelings to be whatever they are instead of trying to “creatively” resolve them is a classic recommendation for a reason (the previous doesn’t work for most people).

The expat blues: missing family/friends and their support

#4. Miscommunication, culture shock and value differences

Everyone is different and all humans have different shapers and experiences. We are all influenced by different people, environments and their values ever since we were children. Miscommunication, misunderstandings and culture shocks are highly likely to happen. Culture shocks can especially occur when encountering social differences, (socio)economic injustice, racism, injustice based on gender and different levels of tolerance towards one’s sexual identity. This one is extra though for expats, and it might help to connect with people who teach you to look for and focus on those things that you do love or are grateful for in those people.

To learn to still look for and find beauty in a country and its nature. Try and be open minded- and more important- open hearted. Take the opportunity to try and learn a new language, explore a new history, or use the times in which you don’t understand the local spoken language, to become a better listener better and to better read someone’s intentions and body language. People develop all their lives and you might just be that one person who brings new insights and change into the lives of those you come across with and they might just have that very same effect on you. You might find it helpful to seek out and meet more people who share your background as well. You might also find that learning about a country, it’s suffering, or identity will teach you more about certain collective conducts, attitudes, perspectives, pains and levels of consciousness. This often won’t mean you will agree with these things, but it could lead one to a better understanding.

It is a great exercise in learning about different religions, traditions and in building cross cultural abilities and interests. There will be things you learn to live with, things you will love and things you can’t and will never feel comfortable with or tolerate, all can be great to learn more about for future reference.

Culture shock is often part of expat life

#5. Partner Employment Difficulties

Patience, support and respect are important partner skills for expats. Finding what works for you and your relationship can take some time. Some partners spend many years abroad where they work from the very first day of arrival and suddenly find themselves without work. It can happen that one partner finds their contract ended and finds great difficulty in finding new employment. Some partners find great fulfilment in being homemakers, while others can suddenly report joy in changing roles and spending more time as homemakers. This is not a one size fit all thing. But when the financial situation allows for it, it is easier to explore options.

I have met many couples who found that a change of roles in life( for some time) made their relationship better and they had great respect for their partner who made dinner time with family and friends, and taking care of the children and the home and planning activities and vacations and holidays feel wonderful on both ends, and also not all the time, but it worked for some. Some moved home and entered a long-distance period, some stayed because they found the relationship more important than their local career and suffered from being apart. Others loved long distance as a period of space in which love grew stronger as did their desire. Some took the opportunity to stay or travel with their partners and enjoyed furthering their studies and spend more time being present with their family and saw it as an adventure. For others it was a source of frustration and a terrible strain on the relationship and they suffered tremendously under it. This was especially true for those careermen/women who loved having a career and had no plans of changing it.

No matter the situation; having respect for one another, patience, listening to and helping one another matters most when you are building something new, anywhere new. It helps to remember when fighting or blaming or feeling sad that it is mostly the situation and not the person who is simply very challenging. When desiring and expat life / to work abroad it can help to connect with some a great head-hunters or agencies and to use your own or others (social) networks which can all be the right people to help when option B kicks in.

Food for Thought

Steve Duck’s work on modern relationships really helps to understand how our interconnections and the ways in which we (choose) to relate matters to all live aspects. Duck (2014) really emphasised having a perspective important to remind oneself of; We are shaped by our societies, but we are equally it’s shapers. The best way to create the lives we desire, is through first profoundly understanding our roles in its creation. Once we learn this, the next step is to consider in which ways and for which parts we can take ownership. 

Simens (2018) recommends parents to ask their children “How” questions, because they tend to provide deeper insights and real eye openers. This strategy is often used to help create more in depth and holistic understandings in investigative settings aimed at (critical) decision making (Moore & Friedman, 1993). When our questions start with “How” and “Why” e.g. how does that make me, or you feel? Or How do I react when that happens and what does that reaction feel like? How do you know that that what you believe is true? this often offers powerful answers. Once the most pressing questions are asked, we can then take responsibility for it, grow from it and possibly inspire others by leading the way through adopting a renewed perspective. In order to do so one must first, and foremost, be willing to meet and really see oneself and others.

More and more expats choose online therapy nowadays

In times of hardship remind yourself of your courage, curiosity, and wanderlust which help in your self-actualisation and goal attainment. Ask yourself questions which enlighten you in  which you better contribute to your own creation of your reality. In situations where your peace and joy, harmony or fulfilment is disturbed: Why do you let others, or this specific situation rob you of that moment or let them do that to you? You can then really take back power over your own peace and grace, which often help with your next steps.

Online therapy with licensed psychologists for expats

Enjoy discreet, confidential and private counseling sessions from the comfort of your own home. Talk online face-to-face with a professional online psychologist wherever you are. Most of our online licensed psychologists are expats themselves living around the globe. Complete the form below to schedule a free consultation and/or get your questions answered. You can also send an email to


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