How to stay healthy while teaching abroad

“Staff are a school’s biggest asset, and their wellbeing directly affects the students in their care”

Working overseas is soaring in popularity for teachers, with an estimated 15,000 leaving the UK each year to join international schools. It’s easy to see why it’s so appealing – new places, sights, food, culture, people and a different pace of life all add up to an experience that can be both transformative and enriching.

There is so much to think about when you embark on an adventure of this kind that even the hardiest of travellers might not consider the nuts and bolts of what it will actually be like when you get there after the excitement has died down. Ask anyone who has lived abroad and they’ll tell you it’s the funny little things that can catch you out and make you feel like an outsider, like not knowing where to buy a trivial item such as cotton wool. Knowing to ask for fruit and vegetables by weight rather than quantity, on the other hand, can really help you feel as if you belong.

After all, feeling at home in your new country is of paramount importance. In fact, it’s often the deciding factor in the success of a new assignment. With this in mind, many international schools are focusing more intently on how they can support teachers’ mental and physical wellbeing. It’s an astute move given that staff are a school’s biggest asset, and their wellbeing directly affects the students in their care.

However, there is also plenty you can do to make sure you get off to a healthy and happy start when you teach abroad. Here are some simple tips:

  1. Discover which medical tests are needed. Every country carries different risks to your health and therefore requires different action to be taken. As an example, Vietnam requires foreign staff to have vaccinations before getting their visa. It could be that your new school automatically organises whatever is needed, but don’t take this for granted.
  1. Read expat destination guides. It might sound obvious, but it’s an invaluable way of setting the scene before you arrive. If you can find one that was written by a teacher who was previously in your situation and can give you the inside track, so much the better.
  1. Get to know the health care system. It’s never fun being ill, but being sick abroad and not knowing where to get help can be downright scary. Familiarise yourself with practical details, such as the location of your local chemist, pharmacy and GP. Also, ask your new school about the health care coverage they provide and take time to understand the details. Should you be taken seriously ill or have an accident, knowing that plenty of help is at hand can be tremendously reassuring.
  1. Find a support network. If you feel cut off from friends and family, it can be easy for your mental health to suffer. Schools are increasingly cognizant of this and are starting to address it proactively. In China, for example, I was involved in setting up a helpline for expat teachers who felt isolated – simply being able to chat to expert support helped them relax and enjoy their assignment more.
  1. Make your health a priority. Moving to a different country can be stressful so remember that self-care is a necessity if you want to be in the best frame of mind to really make the most of your experience. Prioritise whatever it is you need – from more sleep to eating right and exercising, to throwing yourself in at the deep end with local customs – to help yourself feel connected to your surroundings. This is how you will really settle in.

Mitesh Patel is the medical director at international health benefits provider Aetna International.