Burnout in Women Living Cross Culturally
Living and working in cross-cultural environments can been exciting, mentally stimulating and personally enriching. This is why many of us pursue these life experiences. Unlike the tourist who might see only a snippet of a new culture, those living and working abroad have the opportunity to truly experience a culture in all its depth and diversity.
Unfortunately, for all the excitement associated with cross-cultural living, there are also potential downsides that can have far-reaching effects on those who choose to live outside their passport countries. A frequent risk of the cross-cultural experience is burnout, and here we explore common causes and potential coping strategies specific to women in these situations.
Maria, a single parent, felt like she had finally found her dream job when she moved to West Africa and began working as a children’s advocate for a humanitarian organization. During the week she would often travel around the region while a live-in nanny cared for her three young children.
At first, the work was everything Maria had dreamed of doing. She loved interacting with her new community and feeling like she was making a difference. Over time, however, the volume of need around her became overwhelming. She struggled to balance the needs of her organization with the needs of her children and felt guilty regardless of whether she was at work or at home.
The stress mounting, Maria became increasingly irritated with her colleagues and started to withdraw socially. It seemed like she could never get enough rest. Chronically tired and now sick much of the time, Maria eventually took a leave of absence from her organization. During the time away from work, she struggled to find enough energy to get her kids ready for school before collapsing again on her bed where she spent the remainder of the day.
The cycle continued for several weeks until a friend recognized the symptoms of burnout and encouraged Maria to seek help from a social worker in her organization.
What is burnout?
Burnout is a state of psychological and physical exhaustion brought on by having too much stress for too long, with too little relief. Burnout often sneaks up on us. We may not realize that we are as exhausted as we are until we hit the wall and simply cannot function normally.
In most instances, acute burnout like that experienced by Maria, is preceded by other symptoms. People often experience disrupted sleep, decreased joy from activities that were once pleasurable, and may socially withdrawal from family and friends. In some instances, the individual heading for burnout might cope by increasing their use of alcohol, overeat, or engage in potentially risky or addictive behaviors.
Traditionally, burnout was associated with chronic stress at work. Unfortunately for women living in cross-cultural environments, the stress at work is only one component of the many additional stressors associated with the cross-cultural experience. Women who relocate outside their passport countries often experience role deprivation where key aspects of their identity (having a fulfilling career, being a sister, a daughter) are lost in transit to the new country (Young, 2018). Upon arrival, women also may face additional stressors from managing their households while learning to navigate a foreign culture with different values and expectations of women.
Among the most common external stressors experienced at work are increased work hours due to frequently higher demands over what might be experience in one’s passport country (Fleming, 2018). These heightened demands can quickly create an imbalance between work and home and, like Maria, leave many women feeling stress and guilt about having to choose one over the other.
Additionally, women continue to report heightened stress and occupational dissatisfaction from the glass ceiling that exists in many workplaces. Research conducted at the University of Montreal (2018) showed that women often feel stuck in positions where they lack the authority to make significant decisions and fully utilize their skills. Over time, this too can lead to burnout (Santos, 2018).
In a cross-cultural setting, the stress rarely ends at the end of the work day. Many women in West Africa find that it takes longer to shop for groceries and prepare meals. Pre-packaged and “fast foods” that are plentiful in other parts of the world are harder to find in West Africa. Additionally, women often shoulder the responsibility of caring for sick children, finding medical care, and making decisions about vaccinations and medications. This presents challenges with language, traffic, directions, etc—all against an emotional backdrop that can be fraught with fear and uncertainty.
Finally, many women report elevated stress from the prevailing culture in West Africa. Among the more common stressors reported by women are discomfort with frequent wedding proposals, cultural value placed on having children, and perception by nationals that they have unlimited wealth. Many women also express concerns for their adolescent daughters who are navigating the culture without the life experience needed to discern threats from innocent gestures or comments.
While external stressors tend to be more fixed, there is a growing body of research showing that women in cross-cultural environments may unknowingly place needless amounts of stress upon themselves. Perhaps the most common internal stressor arises from unrealistic expectations.
Upon arrival in a new culture, some women expect to save the world in their careers while seamlessly replicating their passport homes and traditions so that their children can have similar childhoods to their own. Some women may expect to learn the language quickly and make friends with their national coworkers and neighbors.
Unfortunately, these unrealistic expectations cause some women to work at unsustainable paces to keep up the façade (to themselves and others) that they are meeting those expectations and thriving in the new culture. In reality, transition and acculturation takes years if not decades and living with unrealistic expectations can quickly exhaust the individual and lead to feelings of resignation and burnout (Eenigenburg & Bliss, 2010).
For many women such as Maria who have experienced cross-cultural burnout, the road to recovery involves setting realistic expectations for oneself while striving for greater balance between home and work. Set social boundaries by learning to say “no” to people or commitments that drain you. Budget for vacations and take them. Your longevity depends upon it.
Exercise, reduction of caffeine and sugar, and building healthy support networks are also key components of a well-rounded life (Gingell, 2018). Many women also benefit from spiritual self-care, which may involve prayer and forms of worship. Journaling has also been found to have a calming effect if one reflects on what they are thankful for along with reminders of why they originally moved abroad (Hartz, 2017).
Social media is a wonderful way for expatriates to stay connected but an emerging body of research on girls and women is showing that depressive symptoms often correlate with the amount of time spent using social media on a daily basis. In the context of burnout, our comparisons may cause us to take exhausting and unrealistic steps to “keep up” with our friends and then deplete ourselves in the process. Rather than comparing yourself to others, try focusing on your unique gifts and invest time in the things you feel passionate about.
Finally, adapting to and ultimately thriving in cross-cultural environments involves accepting failure and mistakes as part of the experience. Adaptation is a process, not an event. When feeling discouraged and stressed about the culture it can be helpful to reflect back on how far you have come.
As women, you have dared greatly by leaving your passport country and endeavoring to make a life in a new, challenging environment. I encourage you to take risks, learn and laugh about your mistakes, and ultimately allow yourself to be shaped and molded by the experience.
Paul Hauth, MA, LPC, is the clinical counselor at Dakar Academy in Dakar, Senegal. He and his wife Sarah have lived in West Africa since 2016. If you have any questions, you can contact Paul via email.
Eenigenburg, S. & Bliss, R. (2010). “Expectations and Burnout: Women Surviving the Great Commission.” Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library.
Fleming, Peter. (2018). “Do you work more than 39 hours a week? Your job could be killing you.” https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2018/jan/15/is-28-hours-ideal-working-week-for-healthy-life.
Gingell, Sarah. (2018). “How Your Mental Health Reaps the Benefits of Exercise.” https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/what-works-and-why/201803/how-your-mental-health-reaps-the-benefits-exercise.
Hartz, S. (2017). “A Self-Care Plan for Global Workers”. E-book (available free online). http://www.saritahartz.com/new-ebook-self-care-plan-global-workers.
Santos, Maricar. (2018). “Study Says Women Are More Likely to Experience Burnout Than Men.” https://www.nafe.com/study-says-women-are-more-likely-to-experience-burnout-than-men.
Seuss, Dr. (1990). “Oh the Places You Will Go”. New York, New York: Random House
Young, Amy. (2018). “Role Deprivation and Guilt.” https://www.alifeoverseas.com/role-deprivation-and-guilt.