Repatriation and a crisis of confidence

I always knew there would be ups and downs, bumps in the road, hills and mountains. No-one said repatriation was easy. But up until now I think I have actually got off relatively lightly – mostly because I have been too busy to really think about it.

But now we are half a year in to our time back in the UK (half a Year!! Where has that time gone?) and I am having a mini crisis of confidence. What do I do now? Where am I heading? What am I FOR?

To be fair, these kind of little freak-outs could happen to anyone, whether they had ever lived overseas or not. Others might call them a mid-life crisis. But I think the reason it hits people like me who have recently moved back from being abroad is that for so long we have either had a purpose (preparing for a move, the move itself, helping your family settle in somewhere new etc) or an excuse (I can’t get a work visa, I don’t speak the language, there’s no work available, my partner travels too much for me to be able to work etc). That doesn’t of course always equate to contentment as anyone who has read my blog knows (eg this post about feeling like a 1950’s housewife). But it does mean you don’t spend all day with you head in your hands wondering what on earth you are going to DO with the rest of your life.

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I’ve been here before. Every time we have come back from an overseas posting I have had to re-invent myself. After Jamaica, I was a full-time mum. After Pakistan, I was waiting to go again as I knew it was likely we would get a replacement posting. After St Lucia I retrained as an antenatal teacher.

This time, I am trying to make a go of freelance writing. I’m half way there with some good commissions from great publications (including the Washington Post, the Independent, Euronews, and many others – if interested please check out my portfolio here). But it’s an uphill battle to actually make a living from this and I know I need to find some regular clients before I can start to believe it will actually work. It’s terrifying to actually be faced with the reality of something that for years I have wanted to do but never really dared. So in a way the easy way out would be to find another excuse – we’re moving again, I don’t have time, I can’t get a work visa (!).

All of those things would stop the little voice in my head that tells me “you’re not good enough”.

But I won’t because I can’t. As far as I know right now, we’re here for quite a few years (possibly – gulp! – forever) so I need to stop making excuses. I need to put my big girls pants on, take a deep breath, and make myself do it. Hopefully it won’t be long and I’ll have my repatriation mojo back.

Have you recently repatriated? How are you finding it? Easier than you expected? Harder? Leave some messages below and I will write another blog post about this at some point when I get my head out of my hands….

Photo credit: Emily

 

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How modern technology has changed expat life: part 1 – work

Over the last few years there has been a surge in the number of apps you can now download on to your ever-increasingly sophisticated smart phone. So many that I suspect most of us can’t keep up – I am sure there are now apps to help you with doing just about anything and everything short of putting the rubbish out (ok – have just Googled that and apparently Coventry City Council have an app called Your Rubbish….).

But for expats, many of these apps are improving our lives in ways we couldn’t have imagined just a few years ago. Not just phone apps, but modern technology generally – the whole idea for this post started after I called a last-minute Uber following a minor car emergency when my husband was out of town. A year or two ago I would have been stuck as normal taxis are just too risky to use for us here in Pretoria. By plugging straight in to the Uber app on my phone however I was able to rescue a tricky situation and get everyone to where they were meant to be on time.   Working, travelling, communicating, living – all things that we can now do easier, quicker, better thanks to technology. And as expats this can include the sort of improvements in our lives that means living overseas doesn’t have to be as isolating, as boring or as lonely as it used to be.

So I thought I would ask around and get some suggestions from fellow expats as to what apps, tools and other technology they love and would recommend to others. I had so many brilliant replies that I had to divide them up into several blog posts, and start today with WORK.  The list below isn’t exhaustive by any means so please feel free to add any that aren’t on it in the comments section.

Work and study

As someone who remote works, I know how important it is to be able to sit at your desk in one country and be able to easily and effectively communicate with someone in another. The improvement in WiFi and 4G in many countries has made remote working a real possibility for so many people. As it becomes more normal in our home countries so it will give us the opportunity to bring these jobs with us when we move. But apart from the ability to connect, what else has been happening to make remote working so much more realistic than it used to be? And how much easier is it is now to be able to study online?

File sharing

You remember how it used to be – someone would email you a file as an attachment, you would open it, change it and email it back. In the meantime the same document has been sent to someone else who has added their own changes. The document owner now has to take all the changes from all the different versions and merge them into one….well, no more. Now you can of course simple share a document with all in your team and everyone can see the same document and change it as required. Dropbox is probably the best known file sharing tool but there are plenty of other services out there.

Affordable webinar platforms

Webinar is basically a Web-based Seminar – so a way for lots of people to “attend” the same lecture, meeting or presentation using video conferencing software. Webinars are also interactive so not just receiving info but adding to it as well.  Video conferencing itself has of course been around for a long time – I used it when I was working in Jamaica back in the early noughties. But the key here is affordable – many small companies or businesses can’t afford the sort of full-on video conferencing facilities and technology needed for the old-fashioned way. A key to opening up remote working to expats like you or me is for companies and organisations of all different shapes and sizes to be able to take us on. This is one way to help that happen. Webinars are also an important and integral part of studying from a remote location. One webinar platform that was recommended to me was Zoom.

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Working in your pj’s: one of the advantages of remote work

Social media management tools

Many of us who work remotely also manage social media. Whether this be for a specific job or for our own blogs/websites, what we realise is important is being able to manage our posts across different time-zones. And unless you want to be getting up at 3am to make sure your tweet is sent at optimal time for the US West Coast, you need to reply on clever social management tools. I myself use Hootsuite to manage my Twitter feed (although in all honesty my management of Twitter is very patchy!). Someone else suggested Buffer and someone I know in the UK who I work with remotely on website design and admin recommends Sprout Social. The beauty of some of these platforms is that you can share your posts across multiple disciplines eg Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc – all at the same time, and all while you are peacefully sleeping.

Project management

When I was having the front cover of my book, the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide, designed, I employed a company that used something called Basecamp. It meant that several of us all working on one project could see what everyone else was doing, could comment on progress, could discuss changes – all in one place. It meant things didn’t slip through or get lost – everything was always where it should be. This is of course a useful tool whether you work remotely or in the same room as each other. But for those of us who ARE working in a different time zone to our clients/bosses/contractors this is a great way to keep on top of a complicated project. Or even a simple one.

Online study

Of course studying remotely has been around for a long time but we are well past the days of having to stay up until 2am to watch the Open University lectures from men in questionable jumpers and bad facial hair. Nowadays you can study from the comfort of your home for courses ranging from just-for-fun short tutorials to full on degrees and post-graduate studies. Coursera is one such organisation bringing together online courses from a number of different providers – in fact, they even have a course called Communicate Effectively in a Globalised Workplace! Another company offering a huge variety of online courses is Udemy – anything from mastering meditation to learning software development. One particularly neat feature of Udemy is that they offer courses as gifts – so if you are still stuck for that last Christmas present for someone special…

Personal digital assistants

I will admit when I first heard about this, I thought we were talking about virtual assistants. By that, I mean people in other places who help you with things like typing up a document or doing your accounts. All useful but obviously becoming obselete now we are in the brave new digital world. So what is a Personal Digital Assistant as opposed to a person personal assistant? The ones we probably know best are those like Siri or Cortana attached to the devices we use everyday. These are still more useful for the kids to play games with, if you ask me. But I am told the future is coming and soon we will be asking these guys to do all sorts of things for us. If you don’t believe me read this. And although it looks like we will be using digital assistants to help us in many ways, from telling us what the weather will be like to re-stocking our fridge, I am sure there will be many ways they will also be able to help us work from home. I just don’t quite understand yet how….

Others

I was recommended a number of other apps and tools that I thought were worth a mention. These included Prezi – a cloud-based tool for creating and storing presentations; Figure It Out, which helps you keep track of time across different timezones; Wunderlist – which is a virtual, shareable to-do list (also great for when you move); and Join.me which I am told is a good way to share screens and team calls .

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So that’s some of the best tools around for remote work; in my next post on this subject I want to look at how technology has helped us communicate, keep in touch with home and make and keep friends in our new location.

Photo credit: Kevin Schraer

A Series on Expat Depression #9: What role should our employers play?

So I am nearly at the end of my voyage through the sea of expat depression. It has certainly been an interesting exercise and actually very useful for me who has found writing these blog posts to be a very reflective process. I hope others have also found them helpful, or at least to have given them pause for thought about their own situation. Today, I look at an area that I haven’t seen much discussion on – that of the role of the employer. Do they have a responsibilty to our mental welfare? Should they? What do you think?

“I think companies who move people abroad should consider their employees’ and their families’ mental health situation and be encouraging and supportive” – “V”.

Sending someone abroad to do a job is a risky strategy. But how many employers ever think to screen their workers for mental health issues before they go, or to help them once they are there?

This was the question I posed in my survey on expat depression, curious to know whether people thought employers had a responsibility for their workers overseas – and if so, what they should be doing about it.

Anecdotally, I have heard of some companies or agencies making sure anyone they send abroad (including the partners and families of their employees) are mentally fit for the stress they are fairly likely to encounter when they get there. This could include anything from having to deal with a totally new working culture to the loneliness and isolation of a non-working partner.

But in reality, most people confirmed what I had already suspected – the majority of employers either don’t even think about depression or mental health issues as a potential problem, or they do nothing at all about it.

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First the good news

“Our organisation (a church) had been sending missionaries overseas for over 100 years by the time we went overseas with them. They tried to screen for it before agreeing to send people overseas, provided a wide variety of support while you were overseas and would spend the money to send you home if you really needed help…” Missionary Kid.

It’s not all doom and gloom though. There were sporadic reports of attempts to help both employers and partners/families. One person said their employer was very aware of depression and that they could have accessed professional help through them. Another that her partner worked at a university where they had “monthly workshops for spouses”.  And Robyn told me:

“The HR manager in one location certainly attempted to stay in contact with workers and their spouses on a regular basis and tried to help with …problems related to settling in and certainly made herself available to help if any other problems arose during our stay….”

As mentioned above, I have heard reports of employers carrying out psychological screening of not just their employer but also their family before deciding where to send them (or sending them anywhere at all). This might seem like taking things a little too far until you consider how many people probably are unsuited to certain destinations. Although I would prefer to see proper support in place for everyone rather than stop people going “just in case”.

But more realistically…

Despite the isolated reports of caring employers most said this wasn’t something they had come across. Of course there was often “awareness” of the issue – as one person put it, they “must be aware as there as so many”. But awareness doesn’t always mean anything is actually done about it.

Not everyone thought the employers necessarily had a responsibility to their employees in this area – one saying “we put out hands up for the move and we were aware of the challenges we would face”. But the vast majority believed that not only was it “nice when they did”, but that it also made business sense for them to do so.

“I do think it is in their best interest to offer resources. It’s expensive to move families overseas. A failed assignment is more costly than counselling resources”.  Mary.

Unfortunately it seems many (most?) employers still have not understood the importance of making sure not only the person who is working for them is happy but their partner and family is as well. As Alison put it:

“I don’t think the employer does much to tackle the problems a trailing spouse might have. They just throw a huge chunk of money at you hoping that’s enough to entice you to go…and then you are on your own. I guess they feel that if they’re paying you so much more (in extra benefits and stipends) that it’s up to you to seek your own help”.

Which is a good point – even if an employer is aware of the issue, what can they actually do to help? Isn’t it better to leave things to the professionals?

How can they help?

Suggestions for what people thought their employers could do to help them ranged from the very simple – “even just asking after me a bit would have made me feel less irrelevant” (I will back her on this one!!), to the more ambitious eg “offering the benefit of some therapy sessions for their employee and/or partner”. Others said just having the employer be more open and communicative on the subject would help – I wonder how many people are briefed on this issue before they leave home? But practical help was also suggested – like this from Mary:

“Simple things that don’t cost a lot like a phone list would help, sponsoring a coffee morning every six months, info on working with the local internet and phones would be a great help. Providing several hours of translation services to spouses every 2-3 weeks after arrival to ask questions of local shopkeepers, apartment staff or tech service people would be a godsend”.

I might add to that list – wouldn’t it be great if every employer provided a copy of my book to anyone taking their partner overseas?

What do you think – is it the responsibility of a global employer to care about the mental health of their workforce? What can they – or should they – do to help? Have you got any stories, good or bad?

Picture credit: Jlhopgood