Top strategies to identify and deal with “expat fatigue”

Camel fatigue

Expat fatigue isn’t one of those things like the stomach flu, where you know it when you’ve got it. If it were, it would be fairly obvious how to identify and deal with it. Instead expat fatigue has this sneaky habit of flying under the radar.

If your excitement for being in a new place has ever taken a nose dive into intense frustration or listless exasperation, you may be experiencing expat fatigue.

Sure, expat fatigue is expected and natural outcome of adapting to a new place. Left unchecked, however, this may be a form of self-sabotage. When you allow yourself or your loved ones to get consumed by expat fatigue, you hijack the very sense of adventure that inspired your expatriate life in the first place. What is really at risk? The expatriate assignment, important relationships and one´s own happiness. These are high stakes.

I don´t want this to happen to you. That is why I am going to share with you the ins and outs of expat fatigue so you can know what it is, be able to spot when it starts creeping in and have a handful of strategies at your fingertips to be able to deal with it successfully.

Name the Beast

Road rage on the way home from work. Refusal to learn the local language. Religiously stirring up evening cocktails. Gut-wrenching homesickness. On their own, none seem to point in an obvious direction, but when you recognize the name of the beast you are facing, you are better able to cope with it. Dr. Dan Siegel of Mindsight calls this strategy, “Name it to tame it.” By knowing the signs of expat fatigue, you are better positioned to get out of it.

Let me share with you my “name” for expat fatigue so you can get on with taming the beast.

Expat fatigue is intimately woven with the process of adapting to a new culture. It may begin with culture shock, that initial discomfort or disorientation when you are in unfamiliar waters. This initial blow to the system is just one of the many steps along the winding and bumpy road of adaptation. After the jolt of the unfamiliar fades, cultural fatigue may set in. You can think of it as the long-term impact of being in a culturally different environment. David L. Szanton’s often quoted definition gets at the heart of this:

Cultural Fatigue is the physical and emotional exhaustion that almost invariably results from the infinite series of minute adjustments required for long-term survival in an alien culture. (1)


David Szanton goes on to name the demanding nature of suspending our default responses, including how we evaluate something, and the tiring effort required to constantly adapt our approach. Szanton is straightforward, “conscious or unconscious, successful, or unsuccessful [this process] consumes an enormous amount of energy leaving the individual decidedly fatigued.”

Throw this hefty extension of energy upon a layer of fatigue from the cyclical nature of expat life (i.e. prepare to leave, say painful good byes, pack, leave, arrive, unpack, meet new people, adjust, find a routine – rinse and repeat), and voilà! You´ve got expat fatigue.

Tame the Beast

If you want to deal with expat fatigue effectively, you will want to have laser-like focus. Cross-cultural psychologists Ward, Bochner, and Furnham (2) help us simplify the complex process of adapting to a new or unfamiliar cultural environment by breaking it down to the ABCs (Affect, Behaviour, and Cognition).

A is for Affect: Pay attention to your feelings.

What to look out for: Take note when you feel confused, anxious or feel isolated. You might experience the overwhelming desire to simply be somewhere else or catch yourself flipping out at relatively minor incidents. Be careful if you notice these red flags appearing at an increasing frequency. Pay attention if your body is screaming at you in the form of sleep or digestive problems, or a dramatic loss of appetite. Letting any of these tendencies go may lead down a dangerous path to depression.

Try this: I hate to state the obvious but taking care of your health and well-being should be your top priority. This means enough rest, exercise and excellent nutrition. Seems simple enough, right? It’s not. Think of how many people struggle with eating well and sleeping enough in a non-expat context!

• Focus on your health so you can regain strength and clarity. It is imperative.
• Try slowing down how quickly or intensely you dive into the unfamiliar.
• Be creative in building “safe havens” of familiarity once a week.

Who knows! Adding in time to eat comfort foods on the sofa with a feel-good movie may be just what you need.

B is for Behaviour: Pay attention to your actions.

What to look out for: When we are in a new cultural context our “natural” behaviour may not always fit in. You know this when you come across as awkward or even inappropriate. (Arg…I hate it when that happens!). This can be draining on so many levels. What is simple for the locals (say, driving in erratic traffic and waiting in line at the bank or even greeting people) ends up requiring a huge extension of your patience or effort. Going through your days feeling like you are always “messing up” or that everything you do is a momentous challenge takes a toll.

It is time to take note when you notice a dramatic change in your self-confidence or assertiveness. Maybe your leadership style suddenly includes “giving up” or “giving in.” You may even find yourself privately making insulting comments about the locals (especially in the car!). A downslide in work performance, refusal to speak the local language or a gradual yet increasing dependency on alcohol are all signs to watch out for.

Try this:

  • Seek to understand the “whys” behind local practices
  • Seek out credible resources to increase your cultural understanding.
  • Identify low-risk opportunities for you to try out new behaviours and get feedback.
  • Take detailed notes of what you are learning (such as new words in the local language or the best way to negotiate at the market). Refer to these often to celebrate your progress.


C is for Cognition: Pay attention to your thoughts.

This is hands down the most complex and least straightforward aspect. You may start feeling worn down and not be able to identify exactly why. Keep in mind that when you are in the middle of adapting to a place that is significantly different from your familiar stomping grounds, you may discover that the way you see the world, how you see yourself or the groups that you belong is being challenged.

What to look out for: You suddenly notice that how you have typically seen yourself is not how others see you – and it troubles you. Maybe you go from thinking of yourself as middle-class to being seen as rich, from being an American to called a “foreigner”, from a colleague on equal footing to someone of lower (or higher) status.

Shifts like these can spur emotions like guilt, shock, confusion or even frustration.

Try this: Know that when you start grappling with big topics like identity, nationality, poverty, injustice, equality, and generally “what is right and wrong”, it is a sign that you are developing.

• When something new is being presented to you, find out how you can learn from it.
• Take the opportunity to learn more about your own culture. What are my main values? My core assumptions? What did I see as “normal” that isn’t shared by my new community?

Expat fatigue is a mirror of resilience

If you are feeling the effects of expat fatigue, it is time to seriously think about your current level of resiliency. Don´t get close to the breaking point.

Instead, ask yourself these 3 important questions:

• What isn’t working anymore that needs to change?
• What strategies am I using right now that are unhealthy in the long run?
• What is one small thing I can do this week to make things a bit better?

Now it is your turn. What is the number one thing that brings you down the most about expat life? Share it in the comments section of my blog.

Sundae Schneider-Bean is an intercultural specialist, coach and trainer based in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso (West Africa) who helps individuals and organizations meet their toughest intercultural challenges with clarity, strength and wisdom.

Living Abroad News Articles

 ‘Not all diplomats understand new visa rules – EWN – 3 June 2015

Provincial officials say the new policy has derailed an Indian tour group’s plans to travel to the country.

CAPE TOWN – Western Cape Economic Development MEC Alan Winde said it has become evident not all South African diplomatic officials stationed abroad understand the new visa regulations.

Provincial officials said the new policy has derailed an Indian tour group’s plans to travel to the country after a child in the group wasn’t granted a visa because of confusion around the unabridged birth certificate requirement.

This is despite the fact that both parents’ details appear on an Indian passport.

Winde said it’s up to Home Affairs to ensure all officials are up to speed with the new rules.

“Home Affairs need to establish that every single one of our embassies and consulates are up to speed, double check that everybody understands what the process is.”

Minors from visa-exempt countries are required to have an unabridged birth certificate when entering the country.

IMPACT ON TOURISM

On Monday, the tourism industry described the new regulations as impractical and an extra burden which will lead to disinvestment.

It affects tourists who want to travel to South Africa as they must now personally visit South African embassies abroad while minors need an unabridged birth certificate.

Single parents will also need to provide affidavits of consent from absent parents when travelling with a child.

The Home Affairs Department’s Mayihlome Tshwete said there have been concerns over unabridged birth certificates, but this has now been resolved.

“We’re able as a government and as home affairs to now read birth certificates that are not translated.”

The South African Tourism Services Association (Satsa), which represents more than 1,000 companies, said it will consult members and decide how to challenge the new regulations.

Satsa’s David Frost said the new regulations mean chaos.

“People in Bulgaria are totally oblivious to this and when they arrive in Frankfurt, South African Airways (SAA) asks them, ‘Where is your birth certificate ‘and they don’t have any. They have a prepaid non-refundable holiday and they’re put on a plane and sent back to Bulgaria.”

He said the tourism industry will suffer severely.

At the same time, some role players in the tourism industry are considering challenging the new visa regulations in the courts.

Frost said, “I think they are making it up as the go along. There is no best practice internationally. We are the only country in the world that is introducing this and you would think if it was such a light bulb moment more sophisticated countries that have been dealing with child trafficking for many years will go down this route. This is actual lunacy.”

Visa rules may be reviewed – Radebe

Cable Car ImageJune 1 2015 – Sechaba ka’Nkosi Business Report  

INDEPENDENT MEDIA The cable car to the top of Cape Town’s Table Mountain. Tourism has taken a knock with South Africa’s visa regulations. Photo: Adrian de Kock

Johannesburg – The government was considering reviewing the controversial visa regulations, Minister in the Presidency Jeff Radebe said.

Radebe told a World Economic Forum (WEF) pre-briefing in Johannesburg on Friday that the government had been inundated with calls for a review amid fears that the regulations might stifle growth, particularly in the tourism and hospitality industries. He said the government had prioritised the revision of the regulations as a matter of extreme urgency.

“We are looking at all issues that have been raised pertaining the visa regulations,” said Radebe. “Despite the noble intentions of these immigration policies, they have had an unintended consequence which needs to be addressed.”

The WEF begins its three-day 25th forum on Africa in Cape Town from Wednesday to discuss among other issues harnessing the informal economy, migration and combating the rise of terrorism on the continent.

The government’s change of heart on visa regulations comes amid fears that the country and the tourism industry, in particular, stand to lose nearly R7 billion as big markets such as China and India cancel their bookings to South Africa.

Last week reports emerged that Air China had cancelled the launch of direct flights to South Africa over the regulations.

Radebe said the regulations would form part of the government’s reforms on migration policy to ensure that South Africa remained the number one tourist destination in Africa.

Reformed policy

“That matter is on the agenda and we are working very closely with the tourism minister in order to ensure that at the end of the day when we come up with these new reformed immigration policy it will take into account all the concerns that have been raised by the industry,” Radebe said.

“We will make the changes as soon as we can get all the information because it is a matter that we are dealing with as matter of extreme urgency. That is why now we are relooking at the whole matter of visa regulations.”

WEF Head of Africa Elsie Kanza said the meeting should also look at how far Africa had progressed regarding its infrastructure development programmes.

Kanza said the meeting would provide Africa with an opportunity to share with other continents on how the migration policies could be enhanced.

“What we are also seeing is a strong interest in the underlying causes of migration that force people to leave their countries to seek a better life elsewhere,” said Kanza. “If you look at the way people have handled migration, it has to talk to human rights and has to mitigate the impact that these have on people’s movements from one area to the next.”

Kanza said the visa regulation problem in South Africa was an issue that needed more than just addressing the policy, but it also had to look at the full integration of the African continent into one economic powerhouse.

Kanza estimated that such an integration would cost more than R600bn.

“A challenge to fast track integration is the fact that many developing countries actually lack connecting infrastructures, that is why this is a critical topic and that is why we will have a full session on that,” said Kanza.

“Closing the gap on infrastructures will cost about $50 billion (R600bn),” she said.

LIBYA (Country risk rating: Extreme); 31 May; Casualties reported in bomb attack in Dafniya – Red24

A suicide bombing in Libya‘s north eastern town of Dafniya earlier on 31 May left five people dead and eight wounded. The attacker reportedly drove his explosive-laden vehicle into the primary security checkpoint on the main road leading from the town to the city of Misrata. The attack has been claimed by the Islamic State (IS) militant group. Elsewhere in the country, IS-aligned fighters reportedly captured the airport in the northern city of Sirte on 29 May, after forces loyal to the Tripoli-based General National Congress (GNC) legislature, which is not recognised by the international community, fled the facility following several days of fighting. Libya is currently divided between rival armed groupings, Operation Dawn and Operation Dignity, which are in turn, loyal to two rival legislatures, the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR) and Tripoli-based GNC. Operation Dawn forces maintain control of Tripoli, while Operation Dignity forces have made increasing gains in eastern Libya around Benghazi. The security environment has been further complicated and undermined by increased IS activity in recent months. IS is opposed to both the HoR and GNC, and has carried out attacks countrywide. The instability and insecurity are expected to persist in the short- to medium-term, at least. Clients are advised against all travel to Libya. Persons operating in Libya are advised to adopt stringent security measures, obtain regular risk assessments from their security provider and ensure that contingency plans are regularly reviewed and updated.

GHANA (Country risk rating: Medium); 1 June; Taxi drivers’ strike to affect Accra – Red24

Members of the Ghana Committed Drivers Association are expected to embark upon a taxi drivers’ strike in Ghana’s capital, Accra, on 1 June. Taxi drivers are expected to embark upon the strike action in response to new directives issued by the Driver and Vehicle and Licensing Authority (DVLA); these state that only commercial vehicles with safety belts are eligible to be registered and granted roadworthy statuses. The strike is likely to result in increased congestion and an increased demand for alternative forms of transport. Furthermore, protest-related gatherings may accompany the strike action. Should demonstrations take place, the possibility of confrontations between police and protesters cannot be discounted. Persons in Accra are advised to monitor local media for updates regarding the strike. Clients are advised to avoid all street protests as a standard precaution. Localised travel disruptions should be anticipated.