Expat Work and Life Domains: Conflicting, Balancing, or Enriching?

Work-LifeBalanceCrosswordbyHand_zps160c73f4Work is one of the central tenets in human life. We ask our kids what do they want to do when they grow up; we start conversations by inquiring about each other’s jobs; we study extensively in order to secure future employment; we belong, as adults, to a well-defined working age population; we differentiate between working week and weekend; and generally, we work to make our living. As such, having a job or working is an integral part of adult life – in essence, it is what you do when you grow up. Yet, for many work takes up the biggest share of one’s life, matching reality with the infamous expression that ‘we live to work’. Hence the quite common experience of work-life conflict and the popular striving for work-life balance.

Work and life domains: to separate or to integrate?

Indeed, we differentiate work from our private lives and try to balance these two parts out, so as to decrease the conflicts that jobs induce on other life domains. For instance, we can stop working overtime and turn our work phones off when the workday is over. So far though, this doesn’t seem to help much. Many recent publications suggest that this is because work-life balance is a myth. For instance, in his latest CNN article social psychologist Ron Friedman argues that work-life balance is dead, and that organizations would be far better off not by separating work from life, but by integrating the two. In other words, Friedman suggests organizations to allow personal life to interfere with work, exactly in the same manner as work interferes with personal life, and to care for the entire employee, thus helping to succeed at both, work and personal life.

Reflecting this topic, recent academic research suggests that work and life domains should not necessarily be separated and conflicting but, on the contrary, can be reciprocally enriching. Specifically, drawing from the developments in domestic research, Kempen and colleagues (2015) looked into the role of life-domain enrichment for expatriate success. After all, work-life conflicts have also been found to negatively affect the expat population, which seems to have even less work-life balance abroad than at home.

Research results imply the need of work-life enrichment

Aiming to better predict successful international assignments, the researchers (Kempen et al., 2015) collected data from 112 German expatriates, inquiring about the topics of life-domain conflict and enrichment.

First of all, the researchers tested whether relevant notions identified in the research with domestic workers also apply to the experiences of expatriate workers. Confirming their hypotheses, the researchers found that life-domain enrichment, defined as the extent to which experiences in one role improve the quality of life in the other role, is not the bipolar opposite of life-domain conflict, but rather a separate multidimensional construct. Similar to domestic workers, for expatriates life-domain enrichment consists of two different directions: work–private life enrichment and private life–work enrichment. Within each direction, enrichment is viewed in terms of development (gain of such resources as skills and knowledge), affect (transfer of positive moods and attitudes), and capital (psychosocial resources such as confidence and feeling of accomplishment). For example, my work is enriching my personal life when researching and writing about expatriates provides me with new knowledge applicable to my personal expat life. On the other hand, raising a child teaches me patience and provides me with plenty of positive emotions, both of which enrich my experiences at work.

Secondly, the researchers found that life-domain enrichment incrementally predicts important work-related outcomes, such as job satisfaction, turnover intentions and accomplishment of role-related expectations. More specifically, life-domain enrichment showed twice as much incremental value for work-related outcomes in comparison with life-domain conflict. These results imply the need to deal separately with life-domain enrichment initiatives when considering expat adjustment and success.

Finally, it was concluded that the direction work–private life enrichment had a higher impact on the work-related outcome variables than the effects of private life–work enrichment. In other words, the more positive impact and additional value our work has on our personal lives the better our work outcomes. This conclusion calls for more initiatives on the side of employers, who according to Friedman should care for the entire employee and ‘not just the sliver of them that sits in the office for 40 hours a week’.

Practical implications

Given the notion that work-life enrichment is highly influential in terms of expat adjustment and success, organizations should continue actively improving expat experiences at work. As the study results show, it is of great importance that employees gain enriching experiences in their offices, be it in terms of new social skills, positive relationships or feelings of accomplishment. Moreover, the principle of resource transfer between different life domains can be accounted for when facilitating expat preparation and adjustment abroad. For instance, adaptation courses might include information and advice on how to foster an enriching personal life while abroad (e.g. encourage expats to continue with hobbies and leisure interests also in the host location). Finally, it is suggested to raise an expat’s general awareness of the positive sides of expatriation, highlighting what it can add to one’s experience, both work-related and personally.

Further reading

Kempen, R., Pangert, B., Hattrup, K., Mueller, K. & Joens. I. (2015) Beyond conflict: The role of life-domain enrichment for expatriates. International Journal of Human Resource Management, 26, 1, 1-22.

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