All Work, No Play for Ex-Pat Staff

"I'm used to working a 12-hour day, but here in Russia it feels more like 15," said a weary Katherine Harold, a native New Yorker who runs her own real estate business in Moscow. "Between my job and doing all the things necessary to having a life, like getting my son to school, buying groceries and taking care of my home, it seems like I never actually have time to live that life."


Harold has described a problem common to many of Moscow's workaholic foreign residents. With its dearth of services and supplies, the city does not easily accommodate the high-octane, hard-driven work style many expatriates are used to -- and their foreign-based employers expect. The chasm between work and play -- bridged back home by takeout Chinese food, 24-hour convenience stores, school buses and drive-in cleaners -- is greater in Russia.


The nature of work itself in Moscow, with its interminable bureaucracy, poor telephone lines, haywire faxes and, for many, the language gap, make tough jobs even tougher.


"It takes hours for things that used to take minutes," said Heather Foley, a special-projects coordinator for Mezhstroy International Inc., who recently arrived in Moscow from Washington, D.C. "You can't accomplish as much during the days as you want. You either have to work longer or concede that you might not get something checked off your list."


Exacerbating such work problems are unsympathetic home offices, which often don't understand why their crackerjack staff's production declines when it hits Moscow.


"I was almost in tears every day for the first six months," said one woman who works in the financial field and asked not to be identified. "I would get calls from New York or London asking why something wasn't finished, and they wouldn't accept that it wasn't my fault. I kept thinking, 'I'm the same person they were so pleased with when I worked in New York, why would they think I'm incompetent now?'"


To combat these shifts in perspective, employer and employee need to adjust to the realities of working in a different culture, said Marianne Anderson, a counselor who works with many expatriates.


The adjustment is often a three-step process, involving realizing that you're not in your own country, accepting that you're not in a country where things run smoothly and surveying and readjusting based on what is available here, Anderson said. Part of this gradual acceptance involves an inevitable unhappiness with the working environment.


"It's called survival," Anderson said. "People need to realize they can't do as much here as they are used to, and they have to make the boss back home understand that. People who don't make the adjustment, don't stay. They just become too stressed out to handle this place."


The warning signs of stress include: sleeplessness, poor eating habits, headaches, irritableness, and the inability to have normal interaction with people, Anderson said.


"If a person came with a problem, it definitely intensifies once they are here," she said. "There are a lot of real achievers here. They don't have much patience with themselves or the Russian system."


There are no pat answers when it comes to finding ways to relieve stress, Anderson said. She suggested that a person rely on homegrown habits. Many of Moscow's more solvent expatriates, however, have found a higher-priced stress solver: creature comforts.


Against Moscow's austere climate, life's little luxuries can have a major effect on how one views the world. For those who can afford it, nannies, housekeepers, cooks, drivers and translators make Moscow more livable. Indeed, many normally self-sufficient people find it hard to live without such help.


Take Marsha Blitzer. In Moscow for the last 2 1/2 years with her husband, Charles, and their 4-year-old child, Blitzer, a lawyer at Baker & McKenzie, initially responded to requests for an interview with laughs and the statement: "I can't talk right now. That's part of having a hectic lifestyle."


Blitzer and her husband, an economist at the World Bank, put in 12-hour-plus days and often find themselves working at least one day each weekend. To help balance career and family, the Blitzers employ a housekeeper, a driver and a nanny.


"I find myself delegating a lot," Blitzer said. "In Washington, we had minimal help. Here, I tend to spend more money to get things taken care of. I don't want to sound like some pampered person, I just think it's near impossible to work the way we do and manage a family without help. Lots of help."


Another problem many foreigners experience is leaving their jobs at the office when the workday is over. Because of limited time and an even more limited social circle, many expatriates said their time off was often spent with business associates talking business.


"I feel like I can't get a break," said one 30-year-old businessman, who asked that his name not be used. "I spend my day doing business. Then, when I go out for a drink with friends, we talk about business. In the U.S., it was bad, but I was always able to escape because I had friends who had interests outside of business. Here it seems like everyone is a businessperson first and last."


There are some rewards, however. Most expatriates interviewed said they were compensated handsomely for their workaholic ways, making much more money than they could back home. Also, and maybe most important, many said the work they were doing in Moscow was more interesting and vital.


"I actually like the atmosphere," Foley said. "It is harder to get things done, but that just makes it more challenging. Also, there is so much change, it's like having a front seat to history. Everything here is just that much more interesting."