4 Ways To Take Care Of Your Health And Wellbeing When Living Abroad

Cigna is adding the Health & Wellbeing module to all health insurance policies purchased up until the end of May completely free of charge and for the lifetime of the policy. CLICK HERE to request a quote.

Carlie: Hey there, it’s Carlie with the Expat Focus Podcast.

Whether you’re doing it solo or as a family, a lot of energy goes into planning an international move and getting settled in a new location. And it can take a toll, both physically and mentally. So, what can you do to help keep your overall health in check? I’m chatting to an expert from one of our health partners – Cigna – in this episode, to get some insight into recent trends, and recommendations on how to make good health a priority, no matter where you are in the world.

We are talking four ways to take care of your health and wellbeing when you’re living abroad. And joining me on the podcast to discuss this topic today is Michael Haguinet, a product manager, global individual health at Cigna. Welcome to the show.

Michael: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

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Carlie: It’s a pleasure. And, I understand Michael that you are an expat yourself. So this will be a really interesting topic because, well, both of us have firsthand experiences when it comes to taking care of yourself in a foreign country.

Michael: Yeah, that’s true. I guess, I’ve been abroad for quite a number of years now, so I don’t really feel I’m always part of the landscape now in the UK, but still, yes. I like to relate to expats and that’s why I was so keen when I joined Cigna to look after our global individual and the one living abroad as an expat, as I could feel like, yeah, it was close to my heart and I can relate to the experience.

Carlie: Yeah, completely. We’re gonna talk through the four points that you think are really important in terms of health and wellbeing when you are living in a foreign country. And the first one on your list is to be prepared. Preparation. And I mean, it’s so key in everything you do, but why is it especially important when it comes to your personal wellness?

Michael: Yeah. I feel it’s maybe obvious, but when you’re moving abroad or relocating, you feel like you need to know where you are going, understand the culture, understand different habits, different surroundings and do your own research. And partly, if you ever have a condition and you are a bit uncertain of what you’re going to face and meet when you are abroad, it’s important to do your research upfront, and probably if you have a chronic condition and have to take medicines, there are a lot of good websites that can help you find out if you can find the same medicine abroad. Making sure you are well looked after.

And as an expat, usually, you want peace of mind and there is already so much on your mind when you’re moving abroad that if you can do your research upfront and be as prepared as you can, that’s probably going to make your experience smoother when you move in.

Carlie: I know it’s something I really didn’t think about. I’m asthmatic myself. And when I moved from Australia to the UK, I just thought, oh yeah, everything will work the same. And I’ll have the same access to my medicines. And the same rules will apply, which were pretty relaxed in Australia. When you need your medication, you can get it. But then I encountered something called an asthma card that I had to apply for and carry around with me everywhere. And a few other little oddities when it came to how I could get my usual medication and what sort of treatment I could expect.

Michael: Yeah. In some countries, there are different regulations, legislations. Some drugs may not be approved in a specific country. Some, you may need to find an alternative. The UAE, for example, has a lot of different stricter regulations. In Asia, you know, Hong Kong and Singapore, that are some of our key markets for expats, they usually have more specific requirements there.

So yes, if you do your own research. We have some surveys where you can do a premedical assessment. And we can help you find out if you are able to follow the same treatment or talk to a nurse or doctor, just to make sure that it’s smooth as it can be when you move in. So, that’s my first piece of advice.

Carlie: Second on your list, Michael, is to be resilient and expect the unexpected. And I think the perfect example of that in the last couple of years has obviously been the global pandemic that we are continuing to live through. That’s something that I think came out of the left of field, even for health service providers.

Michael: Yeah, no, totally. And I feel like as an expat, you need to be very adaptable and as I said, expect the unexpected. Unfortunately, the situation that we’re in for the last two years really tested our resilience and some people were more ready and prepared for it and some really faced a tough challenge. Partly if you’re living abroad, quite far from your family, but you’re usually planning to go and see them every year, every two years and then you were really cut off from them and didn’t have many options except zoom and video conversations, that you were having to really connect.

So yeah, I think what it also showed us is that you should not be afraid to ask for help and make sure that you are open if you’re not feeling too well. And then there will be someone else at the end of the line who can pick up the phone and help you if you’re feeling a bit down.

Yes, I think that’s really one thing that has been quite apparent. It really tests us and really tests our resilience. And I feel like we show that we are quite resilient, but at the same time, it also shows that we have some weaknesses. And I think mental health has been tested over the last 18, 24 months, and probably still in the coming months. So yeah, mental health is such a big topic now.

Carlie: Absolutely. And I think if anything good has come out of the last couple of years, it is the greater emphasis on your mental health, mental resilience and the importance to do things to really actively take care of that.

Michael: Yeah. And I felt like it, this was my third point, is really that you need to look after yourself. And sometimes, probably if you have a family, you have a tendency to maybe focus more on your children or on your partner, but it’s also making sure you look after yourself. You, get a healthy diet, you get some fresh air.

One thing that is usually overlooked is having proper sleep. I think we’ve done a survey recently, and 70% of the people that we’re serving were saying that they’re having trouble sleeping. And sometimes you can just make easy adjustments, eating slightly less or a better diet at night or avoiding caffeine. But yes, I think sleep has also been shown as very closely linked to mental health. It is kind of a vicious cycle. If you’re not sleeping well, you’re feeling very low and have a lack of energy, and then you start not sleeping well again.

So sleep, I feel, is so important. And we need to have a proper program in place to make sure that there’s a right mindset, right mindfulness when you go to bed and that you have a good night so that it doesn’t impact your mental health the next day.

So yes, looking after yourself is key and doing your health check and making sure that, yeah, you get enough exercise and fresh air. I think that applies anywhere you are, it’s not just applicable to expats, but, I guess, when you are a bit more isolated. And I think that my first point is, also, making sure you have a good connection and not just virtually. As we know, we live in a more virtual world, but make sure that when you relocate or establish yourself somewhere, you can rely on people. You know your neighbours, you know your surroundings, you may join a club, social activities… So that will really help you settle in and make you feel part of, as I was saying when I’m in the UK, part of the landscape, really feel at home where you’ve relocated.

Carlie: What did you do? I know you’ve been in the UK for a long time, but when you first moved from Belgium to the UK, do you recall what you did to help you build those social interactions in your new country?

Michael: Yeah. I guess Glasgow particularly, and Scotland in general, is a very football-mad country. So, I was kind of joining and through-

Carlie: You had no choice. You had to join the local football club.

Michael: Yeah, and then, through my wife’s friend, I started playing a few five-a-side games, and it was also keeping me in shape. And then I joined the tennis club and even eventually I tried to play golf to really feel part of the Scottish heritage. That wasn’t too successful. But yeah, I guess sports is usually a good way of connecting and having something in common, getting integrated with your neighbours.

I also feel like here, we feel like we have a good sense of community. And usually for expats, it always relates to how community is important. Being able to do things together, maybe between the different expats or with locals. I think that makes such a difference.

Carlie: It’s funny that you pointed out how important sleep is to good health, because I’m working with a trainer at the moment. I’ve had a few issues with too many croissants since I moved to France. And one of the strict rules he has enforced for me, he’s like before we even go on a, you know, heavy exercise regime, we’re going to address the fact that you go to bed too late every night. And he’s like, nothing else we do will be effective unless you start getting more sleep. And I never really realized how integral it was to everything else you’re doing to try to improve your health and wellbeing.

Michael: Yeah, no, I feel like it is very overlooked, as I said. And it is surprising because it’s kind of the foundation for having good health and wellbeing. But being disciplined, sometimes we  want to ignore it.

Carlie: It’s hard. It’s hard to be disciplined, I have to say.

Michael: Maybe there’s so much temptation of things to stay up for, but yeah. Yeah, another thing that came apparent from the survey that we are doing on a yearly basis, and we surveyed over 18,000 of our customers and most of them, 90% of them were saying that they were stressed. And I think that is kind of something that they’ve changed, that now they’re much more open to say that they are stressed.

Before it was probably much more of a stigma, but now I think people are accepting to say, yeah, I’m not a hundred percent today, or,  I’m feeling overloaded, I’m feeling overwhelmed. And 20% of this stress was seen as unmanageable. So at some point, people can feel like, yes, I’ve had enough, I cannot cope anymore. And that is something that people need to be conscious of, and potentially look for help when it’s becoming unmanageable.

Because stress and being a bit anxious is probably part of daily life. But at some point in our customers, we are really seeing quite regularly, 90% of them are saying, yes, I’ve experienced stress. And I don’t think it’s just linked to COVID. I think there are a lot of different factors that are now playing on their mind, like financial situation. That is one big one that is not becoming apparent. Our expats are saying they are feeling uncertain about the future or the future of their children, how they’re going to be able to finance their education, or how they are going to be able to finance retirement is something that is now more and more on people’s minds.

And then of course job security, with what happened with COVID and a lot of industries being impacted. It felt like, yeah, it’s not just their health that they’re worried about. I feel like there are other elements that are kind of really playing on their minds.

Carlie: And it really feeds back into their health at the end of the day, doesn’t it? If you have money worries, if you have, you know, family concerns, relationship issues, it all comes back in a circle to how you are mentally, physically, and how you’re coping with the stress of your life.

Michael: Yeah. And I’m glad that you mentioned it because it’s kind of a nice transition to where we want to be. I think, now, we really started our vision and our mission to become whole health partners. And what we mean by whole health is not just your physical health, but it’s also your mental health. But it’s not also just about your mind and body, it’s also your environment, your family, your financial situation, your home care environment if you need to look after all these people. It’s really this whole model of what we call the whole health that is, maybe a bit of a cliche, but it really now resonates well to our customers, to our clients, because they understand that it’s not just having a sore knee or a bad back. It’s really what is on your mind, what is really affecting your day on a daily basis and not just work, but outside of work.

 So yeah, we really want to start this discussion about whole health and really position ourself as championing the mental health and the whole health discussion in term of yes, you need the financial aspect, that is so important as well. If you’re not feeling secure enough, then for sure it can unravel and have a different impact on your health.

Carlie: I think it’s fair to say that wellbeing is really not seen as a luxury anymore. And more and more of us are really thinking about investing in our health and wellbeing. And it’s really encouraging to see health service providers like Cigna thinking the same way.

Michael: Yeah, no. Every preventative service is welcome and it’s not just being seen as a nice-to-have, but a must-have. I think we’ve seen that with the vaccine program. I think that was a good example of people realizing that prevention works. And then if you get your jab, and if you get your regular boosters, then you feel much better protected. And I feel like simple things like doing your health check. And now I’m doing my health check every year that’s provided by Cigna, just to check, not just on weight, but doing some cardio, doing physiological assessments, health assessments, and also doing your cancer screenings when you come to an age that it could be a potential risk.

This is now, I feel like, something that should be much more encouraged, and kind of the expectation, that you should do your checks. A bit like how you’re doing an eye test, you should be doing a health check. You should be doing a cancer screening when it’s time to, so that you feel safe and secure and so that you make sure that nothing will come down the line.

So, yes. I presume that is one main thing, that this service before was just kind of seen as an add on, not really a part of your main health cover. And that is really something that as a health insurer, we really want to encourage our customers to do all the preventative screenings and tests and checks that are available, wherever they are, instead of waiting until it’s too late.

Carlie: And I was going to ask actually, where Cigna fits in for expats when they are considering their health and wellbeing extra needs in a foreign country? You know, most foreign countries have some kind of localized health plan. And where does Cigna come in for them?

Michael: I guess we have all types of customers. It really depends on where they’re based, what is the need, what is the expectation. But in most instances, expats, unfortunately, don’t have access to the social security system unless they’ve stayed for quite some time in the countries.

Carlie: That’s true.

Michael: And on their situation and the professional situation. So that’s where, usually, we come in. We come as a replacement of the social secret§ system because they unfortunately cannot have access to it. And then what we also provide is easier access, better quality of care, being supported by our clinical team, by our nurse team. If you’re coming with a chronic condition, we have chronic condition programs that really help you manage your diabetes, your hypertension, your high level of cholesterol. So, we have a range of services that may not be easily accessible through the public system, because at the moment they’ve been quite overloaded.

I think one other thing that we really notice and that we really want to encourage is more virtual access of care. I suppose we’ve seen, over the last two years, how challenging it has been for the public services and health services in all the different countries to manage the pandemic. So we’ve seen an important surge of people looking for help virtually. So, services like telehealth, where you can talk to a GP or a specialist over the phone in a much more convenient way, they are available 24/7. You don’t have to go to the doctor’s office. You can schedule it when it suits you.

That is something that is becoming, you know, easily accessible, but that may not be true with your standard health provider. Whereas Cigna, and most of our providers, we now have a network of digital healthcare and provider’s at a click of a button. Through an app, you can talk to a GP and get the reinsurance that you need. Particularly at the time when there was a lot of uncertainties around COVID, and how you could get the support that you needed. Virtual services, or even for mental health- as we are discussing doing virtual therapies or doing online self-help trainings or programs, like CBTSs- are becoming very popular.

You don’t need to go and see a psychologist or psychiatric. You can do your own self-assessment, initially, try to get the help that has been developed by professionals, and then if you feel the need, you can go and talk to a specialist. But there’s much more virtual help available. So many good online programs. So, I think that is also one thing that as a health insurer, we can help get you to the convenient service in a much easier way.

I think another thing that people were saying when they use their virtual service, is that they can get a quicker diagnosis. So you don’t have to wait for a month to talk to someone and another month or two to get a result of a test or your diagnosis. You can get that within a few days. And I think that’s, for most of our customers, that’s a key difference.

And the last thing is that, sometimes, they feel like they can talk more openly about their issue when they talk to someone else. Maybe, with someone that is less familiar, they can feel a bit more open, particularly if it’s about sensitive topics, like their mental health situation. So, that’s the thing that virtual health seems to bring a lot of benefits to our customers.

Carlie: Yeah, absolutely. And, you know, virtual health is something that I really hope doesn’t disappear at the end of this pandemic, because I have found it to be revolutionary. As you said, in just being able to get an appointment to make it fit in with everything else you have to do in your life. It has been so convenient. And when you are living in a location where you might need to travel an hour each way for a 10 minute appointment, it just makes so much more sense and gives you so much more time back in your day as well.

Michael: Yeah. And the quality that you get is exactly the same, if not better. And the fact is that, you may have someone that is fully dedicated to this virtual consultation, that is there in the moment and spends enough time to make sure that they’re listening to you and that you spend the right amount of time discussing what is on your mind or a specific concern. So I think that’s something that, yes, we are not planning to make that disappear. Quite the opposite. We really want to push it and promote it even more and make sure that our customers are aware of it.  And it’s not because we’re coming out of lockdown. And, for sure, that is very enjoyable. But, we are going to lose some of the benefits that were brought in during the pandemic and during the lockdown.

Carlie: Well, four ways to take care of your health and wellbeing while living abroad, as we’ve just discussed. Number one, be prepared. Number two, be resilient. Three, look after yourself and your family. And number four, build those social interactions.

Michael, it’s been a pleasure to chat with you on the podcast today. Thanks so much for joining me.

Michael: Good to be here. Thanks again.

Carlie: That’s it for today. To learn more about Cigna’s health solutions, you can go to their website, cignaglobal.com. You’ll also find loads of information and free resources on our website, expatfocus.com to help you move abroad easily.

Cigna is adding the Health & Wellbeing module to all health insurance policies purchased up until the end of May completely free of charge and for the lifetime of the policy. CLICK HERE to request a quote.


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