Investigating expat work-life balance from the expat viewpoint

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Expatica HR Top 5 Industry Survey Awards' top ranking survey reveals that expats work longer hours abroad than at home and that women expats have higher work-related stress levels than men.

To investigate the work-life balance of expatriates, Industrial Relations Counselors, Inc. sponsored a survey on expatriate work-life balance which was conducted by ORC Worldwide during late 2006/early 2007.

The concept of work-life balance has become well known, particularly in Europe, however, before ORC conducted this survey, little research had been done on assessing the impact of work-life balance within the internationally mobile community.

Plus, for the first time, the survey sought responses from expatriates themselves, and not corporate human resources (HR) departments.

The survey ranked as number one in the Expatica HR 2007/2008 Top 5 Industry Survey Awards, scoring highly as a ‘hot topic and a topic of interest to HR professionals as well as for readability and quality of data.

Here are some of the main findings from the survey.

Expatriates work longer hours abroad than at home.
When it comes to working in a foreign location, survey results show a clear divergence between company policy on work hours and actual practice. Although it was usual to have a stated hours-of-work policy, nearly two-thirds of the expatriates surveyed work longer hours abroad than they did at home. Expatriates worked on average an increase of 13.4 hours per week. Survey respondents cited several contributing factors, such as the volume of work, lack of local support, cost pressures to perform well and, in particular, business travel.

International assignments disrupt family life, causing dissatisfaction among spouses and children.
International assignments clearly intrude into family life. Expatriates’ families voiced dissatisfaction with assignees’ travel schedules, long hours at work, and the limited support given to families during periods of separation. Nearly 5 percent reported that their families returned home earlier than anticipated, and of that number, 30 percent cited the work and travel schedules of the expatriate as the reason.

Overall, companies have weak work-life balance policies.
Work-life balance initiatives were not, on the whole, available to—or taken up by—expatriates. Only 21 percent say that their organisations had either a formal or an informal policy on work-life balance.

Three-quarters of those surveyed believe that their organisation was not committed to helping expatriates achieve a healthy balance between work and home. Some flexible working practices were available to expatriates. For example, 44 percent reported having the option of working flexible hours or taking compensatory time off for working long hours; however, two-thirds believe their organisations expect them to work outside of normal hours. Over half (55%) did not take all of their annual leave entitlement.

Cultural and language differences create specific stress issues for expatriates.
The expatriates in this survey were experienced in terms of the number of years they had spent on international assignments, the number of locations in which they had worked, and the lengths of their current assignments. Yet, having to cope with language and cultural difficulties resulted in major pressures causing stress.

Despite the majority of respondents reporting being offered language training and half reporting being offered cultural training, significant proportions of expatriates did not complete their training. For some this was due to time pressures and travel schedules, but for a significant majority this was due to lack of interest on their part. On the whole, expatriates realised that they had a role to play in managing their own stress and recognised that their employers could not be expected to take full responsibility. Nevertheless, survey respondents offered suggestions for how their employers could help to reduce stress. These ideas included introducing counselling services and demonstrating a greater understanding of the pressures that working abroad entails.

Female expatriates have higher levels of work-related stress than their male counterparts.
Despite survey data showing that women’s average workweek increased 13 hours while on assignment, only 50 percent felt overworked and 54 percent felt overwhelmed. However, over half of the women (54 percent) did take their full vacation entitlement. Family separation appeared to be less of an issue for women expatriates: only 10 percent reported that their families returned home as a result of their work or travel commitments and only 3 percent reported a permanent, early return of their families. Yet, female expatriates reported higher levels of work-related stress than their male counterparts in the domestic workplace and as expatriates.

Expatriates and HR staff have contradicting views regarding work-life balance policies and practices.
A different picture emerges when data from the 2005 HR survey (The 2005 HR survey was conducted by ORC Worldwide in conjunction with the Association for HR Managers in International Organizations (AHRMIO)1; its focus was international work-life balance policies in respect of their impact on HR personnel in their homeland location) is compared with the 2007 expatriate survey. The majority of HR personnel in the home country reported that organisational work-life balance policies had affected the workplace positively, and had made a difference to organizational performance and to them personally. Expatriates, on the other hand, believe completely the opposite, stating that such policies had not had a positive effect on the workplace, performance, or themselves personally.

Expatriates’ negative views of their organisation’s work-life balance policies are clearly of great significance. The psychological contract between employers and employees—the unspoken perceptions of reciprocity and fairness that affect expatriates’ willingness to perform beyond their contractual requirements and to engage positively with their organisations—is potentially in jeopardy, affecting their loyalty and commitment to their organisations and ultimately their intention to stay.


 January 2009


Winners of the Expatica HR 2007/2008 Top 5 Industry Survey Awards

1.    2007 Expatriate Work-life Balance Survey – ORC Worldwide
2.    Global Relocation Trends - 2008 Survey Report – GMAC Global Relocation Services
3.    Employment Outlook Survey – Manpower
4.    2008 Global Tax Policy Survey Report – ORC Worldwide
5.    2007 Survey of International Localization Policies and Practices – ORC Worldwide


 Click here for more information on the Expatica 2007/ 2008 Top 5 Industry Awards.


We'll shortly be publishing a summary of the results of the other winning surveys on the Employment channel and Expatica HR.

Further reading: Work-life challenges for expat managers

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