How to Balance Work & Play When Taking a Job Abroad  

by Joe Baur

Taking a job abroad is an exciting achievement that will no doubt elicit a number of conflicting emotions: stress, joy, sadness (for leaving friends and family back home), anxiety, confusion, elation. These emotions can (and probably will) reappear at random after you’ve made the move and officially started work. In an effort to win employee of the year, it might be tempting to become fully absorbed into your new employment endeavor. But that would be a mistake! After all, what’s the point of taking a job abroad if you’re going to make it 100% about the work?

On the flipside, if you’re going to commit to a project, organization, or company as an employee, you don’t want to waste your time, either.

Staff during a meeting

So the question remains: how can you be both employee of the year AND a traveler-extraordinaire?

If you’ve taken a job abroad, you’ve presumably been hunting for an opportunity to move abroad, and thus there’s something about living abroad that appeals to you. Perhaps it’s the chance to mingle with international circles, learn a new language, or generally grow as an individual. Whatever it is, you know there’s something special about taking a job abroad that got you there in the first place.

To get the most out of your relocation, it is essential that you find a way to manage work and play when taking a job abroad. Otherwise, you might soon wonder why you even bothered leaving your home country in the first place.

1. Join a language group.

Joining a language group is an essential first step when it comes to balancing work and play after taking a job abroad. It may seem overly academic and perhaps not exactly what you were thinking in terms of “play,” but language groups can be a bridge to not only other foreigners in your same shoes, but also to potential meaningful relationships with locals.

It adds a social level to building a skill that can actually benefit you in the workplace, too.

Making an effort to learn the local language will do wonders in broadening your network of friends and emphasizing the “play” aspect of your time abroad. Even if you already speak the language, you might be able to help someone who’s still working on it, gain more proficiency, or learn some more social niceties, slang, or “insider” words.

2. Don’t stress about working abroad.

Job hunts can be anything but pleasant; don’t be surprised if you’re feeling stressed about your lack of income or interesting work options. Finding the right international gig can be a job in-it-of-itself, and can be excruciatingly complicated when you combine it with settling into a new country, learning a new language, navigating a new subway system, or figuring out how to order something that isn’t pig brains from the menu.

Luckily, there are organizations and agencies to help you bypass the stressors of the job hunt. Companies like Instituto Hemingway, Alliance Abroad Group, and Smaller Earth can match you to a job, get you set up in comfy accommodations, or generally provide support through your transition to life abroad. Using a service like these allows more time for you to focus on relishing in your expat status - getting to know foreign cultures, befriending people from other countries, reflecting on the ever-globalizing nature of our world. Cool stuff.

3. Travel around your new home.

One of the best ways to “play” in your new country is to travel around. Ask your new co-workers or language group friends about their favorite destinations around the city and country. Stay at an AirBnB in a neighborhood across the city or plan a week-long trip that sends you to corners of the country few tourists get to see. Soon, you’ll feel like you’ve graduated beyond the status of a “perpetual tourist” and your new country will begin to feel like home. Nothing clears your mind from the stresses of work like a getaway.

4. Set a rough time to shut off your work brain.

With connectivity at an all-time high, it can seem impossible to shut off and stop working. “Let me just respond to this email,” you might tell yourself after hearing your phone beep at 7:30 p.m. at night. “I’ll just do this one thing, and…” it goes on and on until sleep finally shuts off your work brain.

Maintaining a healthy balance between work and play is impossible if you’re constantly glued to your work. You don’t want to set the precedent with your supervisors that you are constantly available, appearing to live only to work. Some employers might tell you to take a break, but there are plenty out there who will happily take advantage of your eagerness to please. Impress your bosses during business hours and learn to shut it down when the work day is over.

5. Accept change.

Even if your expat life wound up in a country arguably similar to your own (same language, relative cost of living, etc), life will inevitably be significantly different than back home. A shared language will make the transition easier, but you still have to make new friends, navigate a new transportation system for both work and your social life, figure out where you’ll do your regular grocery shopping, how you’ll pay bills, and complete all the other chores that come with life as an adult. Though tackling these objectives does not fall under the confines of your new job, it very much can be “work.”

It’s paramount that you accept, rather than fight, changes as they inevitably appear. For example, it’s much more common in some countries to shop small by grabbing a few things every day from a small market rather than filling up a large vehicle once-a-week as many do in the United States. Different cultures have different definitions of timeliness. Even work expectations at your new job will likely differ from your home country. Identify what’s new in all aspects of your life, accept the change, and you’ll more easily be able to maintain a balance between work and play after taking a job abroad.

Colleagues working on a patio together

6. Research ahead of time to see if “play” is even possible.

Some countries and cultures are notorious for heavily prioritizing work over social life. The United States and Japan come to mind as countries where vacation is often a distant dream. Many workers in those countries work well past the 40-hour work week in order to keep bosses happy. The problem is, it’s hard to scale down your production if a boss sees you’re willing to work 60 hours for a salary or contract that expects 40 hours.

There might also be an unspoken agreement that you will work beyond the typical 40-hour work week in order to meet deadlines or simply satisfy your higher up’s demands. Unfortunately, this does little to keep employees happy. Ideally, a company will reward late nights with extra days off or a half day following a work event. Some companies might even state explicitly upfront that you will be expected to work late, often, and beyond 40 hours a week.

If you want to balance work and play when taking a job abroad, it’s important you ask your new employer all the right questions and do your own research ahead of time to ensure it will even be possible to find time for play. Ask him or her if late nights will be expected, what vacation packages are like, and if bonuses are doled out for excessive hours. You can even find former employees through services like LinkedIn to see how they enjoyed (or loathed) their time at your new company.

At the end of the day, you might decide against the job if you find that any semblance of “play” will be highly unlikely. There’s little point to taking a job abroad if you won’t be able to ever enjoy your time abroad.

7. Plan an exit when “play” disappears.

If you come to a point where work has completely dominated your life and you truly cannot find any enjoyment working abroad, then it’s time to start planning an exit. Don’t be reckless and leave your job without notice or having a backup plan in mind, but do start hunting for jobs in another country or back home where you have an inkling you might be able to rekindle a healthier work and play balance.

Remember, there’s absolutely no shame in going back home. There’s a tendency among some younger people to see returning home as failure. They would rather stick it out in an unhappy situation than admit taking a job abroad has lost its appeal. Of course that’s foolish. Home is home for a reason. Everyone, even the most nomadic of digital workers these days, eventually needs to return to homebase and recharge their batteries. There’s absolutely nothing shameful or embarrassing about it, just as there’s nothing wrong with staying abroad if that’s what makes you happy.

8. Commit to being “on” when you need to be.

Just as you want to take full advantage of your free time, you should also commit to being 100 percent on when you’re on the clock. If you rock your 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. or handle closing shifts like a champ, it will help improve job satisfaction (and the taste of your night cap). Job happiness is essential to general life happiness, especially considering we dedicate many of our waking hours to it. But you have to be willing to put in the work, too.

If you come into work hungover, with a negative attitude, angry, tired, or debilitatingly homesick, your employers aren’t going to be impressed. And when the opportunity comes up for better shifts, a raise, or a promotion, don’t be surprised when your name isn’t tossed into the ring.

Work. Play. They don’t have to be exclusive to one another. With the right attitude, work can be a joy, and with the right perspective, intentional play can turn into working toward more self-enlightenment (or heck, just a good time).

It’s up to YOU to craft the perfect job experience working abroad!