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A woman looks at a closed public beach in Singapore in April 2020, during the Covid-19 pandemic. Photo: Reuters

Are Singapore, Australia, Hong Kong expats still living the dream? Burnout, stress and loneliness rife since Covid-19, survey finds

  • American insurance firm Cigna’s 360 Well-Being Survey talked to almost 12,000 expatriates around the world, including in the Asia-Pacific region
  • 95 per cent of ‘top managers’ in Singapore mentioned burnout symptoms, while 47 per cent of Hong Kong respondents planning to return home

The stark focus on remote productivity coupled with extended periods of separation from family and friends due to the pandemic over the past two years have left expatriate workers suffering from burnout and isolation.

According to American insurance firm Cigna’s 360 Well-Being Survey, about 90 per cent of the nearly 12,000 respondents said they were stressed and reconsidering their priorities with a greater emphasis on flexibility or being closer to family and friends.

“Perhaps more worrying is that 98 per cent of people we spoke to had experienced symptoms of expat burnout, driven, most likely, by the fact that 89 per cent said they are ‘always on’, constantly connected and unable to switch off from work,” read a report on the annual survey, which covered 15 major expatriate destinations spanning the Asia-Pacific, Africa, Europe, the Middle East and North America.

Countries around the globe imposed varying degrees of Covid-19 curbs after the pandemic first hit in early 2020, as they struggled to stop the spread of the virus. So far it has infected more than 537 million people and is responsible for over 6.3 million deaths worldwide, according to data from the World Health Organization (WHO).

Singapore’s expat numbers slump to lowest level since 2010

Restrictions on public movement and businesses prompted firms to switch to remote or hybrid working structures and all but shut down international travel as nations, until only recently, maintained strict control of borders to clamp down on imported Covid-19 cases.

Major curtailments on international travel – and in many cases, domestic movement – have had a lasting effect on the well-being of expat workers, with 87 per cent of the survey’s respondents saying they felt helpless, trapped or defeated and 86 per cent expressing feelings of being detached or alone in the world.

The experience of living abroad during the pandemic has prompted a lifestyle shift for nearly three quarters of those surveyed. That means it is now necessary for multinational firms to rethink what they are offering potential staff if they hope to fill future overseas postings, said Jason Sadler, president of Cigna International Markets.

“The exciting, rewarding, globally mobile lifestyle that used to sum-up the ‘expat dream’ has changed and more people are now prioritising lifestyle, family and friends when planning moves,” Sadler said.


‘Hong Kong is my home’: Expats explain why they’re staying put

‘Hong Kong is my home’: Expats explain why they’re staying put

Another concern relates to personal finances, with only about a third of the survey’s respondents saying they were either confident about their current financial situation or had enough savings for retirement.

‘Stressful’ Singapore

In the Asia-Pacific region, nearly half of respondents holding top management posts said they were likely to relocate in the next two years, driven by “lifestyle considerations”. The survey found that their preferred destinations would be Australia, the UK and Canada.
The situation appears particularly acute in Singapore. There, 95 per cent of expat respondents in top management positions said they have burnout symptoms and 29 per cent said they have too much work.

The region also has more short-term expatriates than all other markets covered by the survey. For example, those who have spent less than a year working overseas account for 57 per cent of expats in China, followed by 47 per cent in India and 40 per cent in Singapore.

A Singapore food court in April, amid an easing of Covid-19 restrictions. Photo: Bloomberg

Hong Kong seems to still be a popular ‘mid-stay’ destination for some, despite ongoing pandemic curbs, with more than 40 per cent of respondents living in the financial hub having worked abroad for between one and five years, the highest proportion among all destinations surveyed (not just in Asia).

However, the city could see a major decline in its expatriate population, with 47 per cent of respondents planning to return to their country of citizenship due to lifestyle concerns and to be closer to family, the survey found.

Australia appeals to expatriates below the top management band, according to the survey, with more than two thirds of respondents saying they were “very unlikely to relocate in the next 24 months for any reason”, even as 48 per cent admitted to facing significant stress because of the cost of living.

Exit rate for Hong Kong expats fast outpacing number of foreigners moving in

The survey also found younger people seem keener to work abroad than their older counterparts, with up to 37 per cent of respondents aged between 18 and 34 interested in overseas postings, compared to 13 per cent over the age of 50. That trend is especially strong in developing countries like Kenya, Saudi Arabia and India.

Expats who have spent more than five years working abroad are also much less likely to choose to quit, with only nine per cent saying they would likely return home compared to a quarter of those who have been overseas for less than a year.

“The past couple of years during the pandemic have been especially challenging for existing and long-term expats,” said Dr Stella George, chief medical officer with Cigna International Markets.

“So, while many will be moving closer to home, many ambitious younger professionals will also start taking advantage of the opportunities that overseas postings offer, such as quick promotion, flexible working and other incentives. These benefits are especially attractive to people earlier in their careers.”