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The UAE is one of the most enticing countries in the world for those looking to taste the experience of working overseas – it is little wonder that more than 80% of the UAE’s population is made up of expatriates.   

Initial feelings of excitement can be quickly overshadowed once when trying to find accommodation, make new friends, develop a personal network and manage family requirements sets in. When you throw into that mix a lack of social support, feelings of isolation and loneliness, a change in environment and the need to adjust to a different culture, it is understandable how expats require additional support and are impacted with stress, anxiety and depression.

According to latest studies from the World Health Organisation (WHO), more than 300 million people globally are now living with depression. In the UAE alone, approximately 20% of the population suffers from some kind of anxiety disorder, which can be more pronounced among expats.

The WHO’s statistics suggest the UAE has the highest regional level of depression, at 5.1 per cent of the population. The country also ranks highly for anxiety in the WHO’s tables, with 4.1 per cent of people admitting to a problem. While these statistics are concerning, it does lend to a ray of light given the tremendous work the UAE has done in raising awareness to the need for good mental health.

When we think of mental health, we don’t always realize the impact it has on physical health. Common signs of stress and ‘burn-out’ to look out for in yourself and others include:

  • A lack of appetite
  • Persistent physical ailments (such as headaches, frequent infections, fatigue, substance abuse, impaired judgment, worrying, recurrent nightmares)
  • Irritability
  • Emotional outbursts
  • Sadness
  • Making excessive complaints about colleagues and/or management
  • A loss of confidence

Maintaining a healthy work-life balance

Crucial to expat professionals in the UAE is a need for them to maintain a healthy work-life balance. Of course, we would recommend this for all employees, but even more so for expats and never more so than now, while we are all adjusting to a new ‘normal’ as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Due to all the recent restrictions – in particular physical-distancing and travelling – many expat professionals and their families may be experiencing overwhelming feelings of isolation and intense loneliness. Many may be required to forego trips back home or annual family holidays – a lifeline for many living here on their own for work – and will instead be spending their first full summer away from family and friends in 40-degree heat. Some may be having to contend with employment and financial concerns as well as a new way of remote working from home.

Having survived the challenges of weeks of ‘home learning’, many parents may now be in a state of panic as to how they will entertain their children over the long, hot summer holidays. Others may still be trying to reconcile their grief from losing a loved one to the virus or be recovering from illness themselves.

It’s crucial that no matter the situation or the necessary adjustments we are all having to make in our lives following the Covid-19 outbreak, we all set aside time to do things that we enjoy and help us to relax, which can hugely and positively affect the way we feel. For example:

  • Hobbies and quality time with family and friends is key – even if it has to be via Zoom.
  • Having a confidante to talk to and share worries and concerns with is a proven solution to problems
  • Regular exercise
  • Getting a good night’s sleep
  • Eating a healthy and balanced diet

Humans are naturally social animals and so regular contact with other people provides us all with a sense of security and contentment. So, while we may need to adapt physically to new situations, mentally and emotionally we can all still be there for each other.

By engaging in healthy behaviours such as exercise, social communication (using online video platforms), mindfulness, creating structure and routine, taking individual ‘time out’ and helping others, we can all make good strides in managing our mental health in such unprecedented times.

Ways to unwind during the summer months

Some key recommendations and strategies for us all to consider over the summer months, include:

  • Learn to relax. For those really struggling with high levels of stress and anxiety, learn and practise active relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing and mindfulness, which can help re-centre you during times of extreme stress. Shift your focus with exercise, and hobbies whether it’s reading or listening to music or talking to your loved ones. Take the time to do the things that you’ve wanted to do for yourself and embrace the opportunity to reflect on the positive impact of a slower paced life. Anything that allows your mind time to ‘switch-off’ for a set period of time, will help you to re-focus and remain calm.
  • Communicate! Whether with family, friends or work colleagues, it’s so important to stay connected via technology such as WhatsApp, Snapchat and Zoom on a daily basis. Supportive chats and messages are a great way to help keep morale and spirits up during this challenging time.
  • Help those in need. Turn your attention towards those most in need – particularly those with limitations, aged 60 years and above, and those with underlying health conditions, who are most at risk. Providing help and support to others where you can will help shift focus away your own worries and concerns and in turn help reduce feelings of loneliness and anxiety levels. Even just a phone call to reach out and connect brings a feeling of community care.
  • Be active. If you are well enough, exercise is really good. Look for online classes or courses to help you take light exercise in your home. Find music that helps boost your mood. If you are able, get into your garden and get daily doses of sunshine. Anything that allows your mind time to ‘switch-off’ for a set period of time, will help your mind and body to relax and reduce anxiety and stress levels.
  • Me-time. All of us, but mums in particular, should try to set aside ‘me-time’ no matter how limited. Being at home with children all day, every day, can be exhausting both mentally and physically. Ensure you have some time alone each day to ‘re-set’ and ‘re-boot’. Whether it’s having a bath, or calling a friend for a catch-up, this time is essential for preserving your mental health and wellbeing. Children will benefit far more from a relaxed and happy parent, than one who is stressed-out, impatient, short-tempered and exhausted.
  • Make a plan. Try to re-focus your worries and fears and turn it into something useful and productive. Make plans for when this is all over – consider things you’ve always wanted to do, places you’ve always wanted to go. Now is a good time to take a step back and re-assess any life changes you would like to make. Try to identify just one small task to accomplish every day. This will provide us with the feeling of value and purpose as we are able to tick off the task from our list.
  • We’re in this together. Take a step back and remind yourself that this is a collective experience and one which we need to work together to help manage. There are ways and means we can try to help limit its impact.
  • Reach out: Virtual therapy is a good way to seek support and engage with a therapist if you are not able to cope or manage. These are unprecedented times and it is perfectly normal to feel a range of emotions at this time as well as grief over the loss of your freedom. Engaging with a therapist that is using a confidential platform, can allow you the space to experience the emotions and understand allowing you to move through this time without having long term impact on your mental health.
Tanya Dharamshi, Counsellor

This page was clinically reviewed by Tanya Dharamshi (BSW, MSc Psych, Counsellor, DHCC, UAE). Tanya brings 18+ years of counselling experience in trauma, crisis intervention, child abuse, substance addiction, attachment disorder, depression, anxiety, stress, bereavement, couples therapy, mood disorders, chronic illness and adjustment disorder. View Tanya's full profile here.