Work-related stress is something we’ve all felt at some point in our lives. At times it can even add to the excitement of a new role, and most of us do thrive in the pressure cooker that is the modern work place. But at other times it can become overwhelming and lead to both mental and physical health complications.
Many studies have shown that work stress is a major source of stress for adults globally, and this has only escalated over the past couple of decades. Not only is it detrimental to the health and wellbeing of employees, but the impact of work-related stress on workplace productivity and the broader economy, makes it in the best interests of both employee and employer to dedicate resources to combating the issue.
On top of common place work stress, being an expatriate – and the unique strains that come along with that – can further exacerbate the problem.
Stress is a highly personalised phenomenon, but there are some common triggers. Long hours, work overload and time pressures are common features in many jobs, but pair this with the more unique circumstances of being an expatriate, and the problems can often be compounded.
In many cases, expats face more pressure at work as there are higher expectations of them. Arjun, who has been working in KL for five years and is originally from India, explained, “Being an expat, the expectations are higher on the expert knowledge one has. The general feeling is that being an expat, one is supposed to be an expert in his or her field of work. This can create a psychological pressure on the individual.”
Ben, originally from South Africa, felt a similar way, “Sometimes expectations might be higher, as many expats are employed to help introduce new skill sets into an organisation and to mentor staff.” However, he took a philosophical view of “that’s what we’re employed to do” and this should be expected on accepting the role.
For many expats, job insecurity plays a major part in escalating stress levels, as many are employed on a temporary or contract basis with no guarantee of this being extended. Employment being based entirely on the renewal of appropriate employment visas can add to this insecurity, as Camille from the Philippines describes, “There is no work security. Local and permanent residences are given priority which could mean you are given the least priority to be retained.”
This has been an increasing problem in times of economic slowdown, and can be a particular psychological burden for those expats that are the sole breadwinner for their families. “With redundancies more and more close to home, it does weigh on one’s mind from time to time,” Ben explains. This is especially difficult when caring for family members back in your home country as Arjun found, “There is a lot of pressure for any individual who is the sole breadwinner. The feeling of not being able to take care of ailing parents can create an environment of helplessness some times.”
The lack of a support group in the shape of family and friends can also make life difficult for new expats. This is important not just for coping with work related stress, but also everything else that comes as part and parcel of being an expat. Relocating the family, moving house, arranging schools can all be contributing factors to stress levels that in-turn spill over into work life, and make coping more difficult.
It can take time to establish a trusted support group, as Arjun found, “Concerns about emotional bonding and cultural differences when moving to a new country do create anxiety.” Ben agreed with him, “Arriving in a new country with no immediate friends or relatives certainly increases stress, especially if you’re married with children.” But both feel that Malaysia is an easy country to settle in and, as Ben stated, it’s all part of the fun – “You need to be mentally prepared for the rollercoaster ride!”
The impact of stress on health can vary according to individuals, although high stress levels can contribute to developing a range of health problems. These include mental and behavioural ailments such as exhaustion, burnout, anxiety and depression, as well as physical impairments like musculoskeletal disorders and – the big one – cardiovascular disease.
A recently released report from the International Labour Organisation found that the risk of cardiovascular complications are at least 50 per cent higher among those suffering from stress at work, in comparison with those who are not. They also found a risk of increased heart rate and raised blood pressure with greater risk of hypertension.
Arjun found that he suffered from bouts of insomnia and lack of appetite; and eventually developed physical ailments as a result of his stress levels. “A nerve pain started in my neck due to elevated stress and the muscles continued to tighten due to anxiety.”
Managing And Preventing
Medical professionals and the expats we interviewed here, agree that quality of life outside of work acts as an important buffer against the stress caused by work. Keeping active on weekends, finding a satisfying hobby, creating new support groups and joining the local community are key.
Gary, originally from the UK, claims that “making friends with local people and joining community activities” helped him manage his stress levels when starting out his new life in Malaysia – the simple pleasure of “sinking a beer over a game of rugby with some good friends always helps.”
Spending quality time with the family is important for Ben too. “Playing silly games with my two young children, or having a date night with my beautiful wife, always re-energises me”; it ensures that he’s able “to switch off from work distractions and focus on family fun time.”
Exercise also proved popular with our expats, with Camille choosing to go to the gym and run marathons, while Arjun prefers a “simple brisk walk in nature” to “elevate the mood and reduce stress.”
The good news is, while being an expat may add to the stress levels you experience at work, you picked a great country to be an expat. Many of the people we spoke to, including Arjun, agree that “the good thing about Malaysia is that the people are friendly enough that you will get help from whomever you ask,” and that the people here will “make anyone feel at home.”
Work-related stress can be a serious issue if it is not tackled effectively, at both an individual as well as an organisational level. If you do feel that things are getting on top of you, don’t suffer in silence. There is plenty of help out there, with many people experiencing the same. So take action, discuss your concerns with a line manager at your organisation and consult a medical professional.