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How does your international career affect your mental health?

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Written by Asaël Häzaq on 03 July, 2024
More and more expatriates are becoming aware of the importance of mental health preservation. Rather than seeing "career" and "mental health" as opposing forces, they recognize the importance of well-being at work. But how can working abroad impact your mental health? How can you prepare for and protect yourself while working overseas? Let's find out.

How do international careers affect expats' mental health?

In its 2024 "" report, the international insurer AXA provides a concerning overview of expatriates' mental health. Four out of five expatriates experience mental health issues. The study, conducted from November 15 to December 11, 2023, collected 16,000 responses from expatriates aged 18 to 75 in 16 countries (including the United States, Japan, and Germany).

More than half (54%) of the expatriates surveyed believe that their company does not adequately address mental health, an increase of 6 percentage points from 2022. This sentiment is most prevalent among young foreign professionals (49% of those aged 18-24). Women are also more affected (34%) compared to men (14%). These differences highlight issues of age and gender discrimination. Not all employees are treated equally in the international job market. In some countries, women's rights are regressing, while others offer limited opportunities for senior expats (except for high-level directors and highly skilled professionals).

So why move abroad? Many foreign workers are pressured in their professional lives and question this decision. Eighty percent of respondents link their poor work environment to their mental health issues. The study's authors remind us that mental health issues manifest differently in each individual. While there are broad categories of symptoms, there is no single way expatriates react. Some expatriates lose self-confidence, appetite, and sense of direction. Others develop sleep disorders, concentration difficulties, chronic fatigue, or boredom (bore-out).

Protecting your career and preserving your health

Are you experiencing repeated colds, sore throats, muscle aches, loss of concentration, slowed pace, etc? Mental health issues manifest through symptoms reminiscent of illnesses we consider benign (or at least easily treatable). However, when sick leaves multiply, it's time to take stock of the situation. Far from providing rest and recovery, repeated sick leaves indicate the expatriate's suffering. The study reveals that in 2023, 27% of expatriates surveyed had at least one sick leave due to psychological distress. Once again, young people are the most affected (54%). Foreign managers are also more impacted (38%), citing their particularly delicate position in the company as a source of increased pressure. More vulnerable, foreign workers are more likely to request sick leave. Last year, foreign workers requested twice as many sick leaves as natives.

To protect their careers, expatriates tend to ignore signs of mental suffering, which can be both psychological and/or physical. The study reminds us that psychological distress is not less significant than physical distress; the two can be linked. A recent survey of foreign caregivers in Kuwait revealed that 85.9% are exposed to some form of violence, 77.3% to physical violence, and 48.8% to psychological violence. The survey, conducted by Dr. Hoda Al-Gharib, a consultant for the Kuwaiti Ministry of Health, recommends a comprehensive plan to combat violence in the healthcare sector.

Should you talk to your employer about your psychological distress?

Do we move abroad to survive or to advance our careers? Whom should we confide in when work becomes a burden? While the health crisis has brought mental health preservation to the forefront of company goals, the results are mixed. Some countries are leading the way, while others stagnate on the issue. Foreign workers (like locals) still struggle to confide in their managers, and this is evident from the survey: 52% admit having difficulty discussing their psychological issues with their managers. Mental health touches on personal and intimate aspects, often leading to negative prejudices.

This is why many employees prefer to hide their psychological distress or mental health issues. Some don't even dare to consult a company doctor for fear of being discredited and jeopardizing their careers. However, there are solutions to anticipate the impact of your career on your mental health.  

Tips for preserving your mental health while building a career abroad

International careers and well-being can go hand in hand. While the WHO continues to urge states to better consider well-being at work, companies and workers are mobilizing to make changes.

Redefine your job and your aspirations

Every professional activity can be stressful. However, stress levels vary depending on the tasks to be completed, the level of responsibility, deadlines, and risks involved (such as maintaining confidentiality, providing care, supervising children, transporting sensitive materials, etc.). What kind of career do you want to pursue abroad? How do you define your "career"? For some, it means running a business abroad or climbing the corporate ladder. For others, a career is more about self-fulfillment. These expatriates seek personal growth to thrive professionally. Which definition resonates with you?

Perform well, but don't overdo

Regardless of your definition of "career," don't overdo it. Many expatriates push their limits to impress their employer. While occasional over-exertion, like pulling all-nighters to complete a project, can be understandable, making it your only mode of operation is a red flag. Be wary of burnout and professional exhaustion. Building a career abroad doesn't mean your entire life should revolve around your work.

Research your company's mental health policies

There can be a significant gap between grand declarations and actual practices. How does your company address employee well-being? Have you discussed it with your employer? Some expats now talk about mental health during job interviews. Others hesitate due to ongoing prejudices. Specialists are also divided on this matter. Should you discuss mental health at all? Should you tell a potential employer about past depression or any mental health condition? Some believe times have changed, and employers are more understanding. They see it as a way to "test" the foreign company. If there's any discomfort, you can decline the job offer. Others advise against risking your prospects by mentioning personal matters.

Speak up and protect yourself

Does your company provide well-being workshops? Are discussion groups available? Is there an occupational doctor within the company? How are the offices arranged? What is the work organization like? How is the work atmosphere? Is open communication encouraged? Answering these questions will help you better understand how mental health and well-being are addressed in the company.

Speak up. If it's too difficult to talk to your supervisor, find a trusted person. It may be local and expat friends, support groups, or associations. If there is no such physical structure in your host city, turn to online groups. You might even consider taking a break from your international career if you feel overwhelmed. There's no harm in advancing slowly while preserving your mental health.