The Challenges of Working Abroad as a Massage Therapist

It is fascinating to learn about the different treatment concepts which you can then incorporate into your own routine. It is a wonderful job and you will probably experience some of the best moments of your life working abroad but there are many challenges you will face. This article gives you an idea of what to expect when working as a massage therapist abroad and explains how to overcome these so you make the most of your experience…

Language Barriers

English is a universal language, and in foreign countries the school children are taught this from a very young age. Most people in developed countries have a basic understanding of English, especially if they are working in a tourist resort.  One of the first things international employers look for is that the therapist can speak fluent English. European employers usually ask for this, plus to have the basic grasp of one other language. If this is a requirement, you should brush up on your basic conversational phrases.

There is a great iPhone app that helps you with this and goes one step further than a phrase book: you can actually listen to the pronunciation of the words. Some places of work will offer to give you free language lessons to suit the type of  tourists if this is vital to your job; an example of this is in Cyprus, where English and Russian is widely spoken and therefore basic phrases should be covered.

Working as a massage therapist is usually not too demanding when it comes to the language side of things. It is purely a relaxation treatment and you don’t have to speak much during the treatment apart from a one-off pressure check with the client. It is different to facials, where you talk the client through the products and treatment in order to try make a sale at the end.

The therapist should be aware of key phrases such as introducing yourself, checking the pressure and asking if everything is ok. Most people understand the word ‘problem’ and therefore instead of complicating things, the therapist should ask ‘Any problems?’ This will give the client the opportunity to point out the areas they want particular attention on and points of tension. Foreign clients can get very confused if they are not fluent and the therapist should try to simplify things as much as possible, otherwise the client can get very stressed, which contradicts the whole point of having a treatment! Body language is very important and a smile and open, positive gestures can go a long way where there is confusion with words!

The consultation is usually covered by the spa reception, where the staff are recruited in a more language specific way. Therapists should always cover their back and ensure they have discussed the consultation, with someone who understands the language it has been written in. It is vital to be aware of any conditions the client may have so you can adapt your treatment accordingly.


To be a massage therapist overseas, your body must be physically fit. The hotter the country, the harder the work is going to be. Massage can be like a full body workout to the therapist… if you do it properly (i.e- using your body weight, keeping your back straight, bending your knees and moving in rhythm with the massage ). You should be in good shape before you work somewhere hot as you will not enjoy it if you are struggling.

It is not good for your body to be constantly exposed to air-conditioning, as you are exposing it to an unnatural cold sensation. If your body is going from extreme heat to extreme coolness this can confuse your body and make it more susceptible to illness such as coughs and colds. Air conditioning does not have a humidifying function and therefore the air is very dry- the body’s response to this is to produce more mucus which results in runny noses. It can be very embarrassing when you are massaging a client and all you want to do is snivel! Turn the aircon to an appropriate heat and don’t have it too cold! The client wants to feel warm and relaxed and therefore may complain if they are not comfortable with the temperature.

Aircon also causes water to evaporate from your skin into the air causing dryness and dehydration. You should counteract this by drinking lots of water, it may seem unnatural and you will go to the toilet a lot at first but your body will get used to it and thank you in the long term!

Cultural Differences

Every area of the world has their own set of beliefs and cultural values which are unique and often common within the culture. I worked in an oriental-inspired spa once, where all massages are focused on qi technique. Qi is an ancient holistic practice, fundamental to Chinese medicine which was used thousands of years ago by Chinese monks and is still used in treatments such as acupuncture, acupressure and reflexology. It focuses on the belief that poor health is caused by a weak or interrupted energy flow and therefore good health is achieved by using this technique during massage.

Another treatment concept I came across was a Japanese bathing ritual for the feet with hot, scented towels; this involved a ‘welcoming touch’ where the client can become acclimatized to the therapists touch. It also cleans the feet, as feet accumulate a lot of dirt, especially in beach resorts, and can be unpleasant to the therapist.

In the Mediterranean, there are a lot of Thallassotherapy treatments which are based on the assumption that products containing sea water and marine based ingredients help to heal the body. These little ‘touches’ to the treatment will vary wherever you travel to, but always expect something unique to the area you are living in.

A lot of foreign countries have a culture of extreme respect. It varies from area to area, but clients sometimes get very offended if you walk into the treatment room before showing them in. You should always allow the client to walk into the room first with a gentle hand gesture as a matter of courtesy. Positive body language will ensure a good rapport between client and therapist, and the therapist should always show respect to the client’s cultural needs.

You should be extremely careful if wanting to work on your own or self-employed abroad. Some male clients take the word ‘massage’ the wrong way and think it means something else… You should always be on your guard and never work from home if possible.

Differing Expectations

The ability to tip varies with many cultures! In some places, tips are compulsory and a client wouldn’t dream of leaving without expressing their gratitude. The Americans tend to be very good at this (which is why the money is usually excellent working on American cruise-liners!) Europeans tend to expect the service to be included in the price of the massage. If you are working in an area where tipping in cash is encouraged, you could almost live off your cash tips and save everything else, whereas if this wasn’t the case you would have to learn to budget.

Sometimes, the job is a mixed role and not just massage. If you choose to work abroad as a personal therapist for a wealthy family, the job description could include either housekeeping or au pairing so always read the advert carefully so you are not in for a shock. I know that many massage therapists who work in ski resorts are basically glorified housekeepers that do 1 massage a day (if that!). In some spas, you will be expected to learn other body treatments to complement your massage skills so you can accommodate clients who are having double treatments e.g body peeling then massage.

Another thing to think about is that if your flights and accommodation (and sometimes other benefits too like food, visa, insurance etc) are included in a package, it is usually the case that the therapist has to work longer hours and more days to compensate this privilege. The wage will be considerably less (reduced by about half) compared to a typical wage for the role.

Whatever happens, always voyage with an open mind, and embrace everything! Happy Travels!

Back to listing