How you can beat the business travel blues

It's up to businesses to develop policies that protect their employees from the downside of business travel.

Some people thrive on frequent business travel, while others flounder. What’s the secret to making travel less stressful?

By Katrina Lobley

In the Oscar-nominated film Up in the Air, perhaps the most devastating film about business travel ever made, George Clooney’s character, a ruthless corporate downsizer, revels in constant travel. He’s a machine, making short work of packing, airport security screenings and hotel check-ins. By film’s end, though, an epiphany strikes: he realises there’s more to life than clocking up 10 million frequent flyer miles.

Frequent travel, aka hypermobility, can take a toll on both the business traveller’s health and their personal relationships. Researchers from England’s University of Surrey and Sweden’s Lund University analysed first-hand responses to frequent business travel, and published their findings in 2017 in the Transportation Research, Part D: Transport and Environment journal. 

They found that people who travel regularly for business either flourish or flounder. Individuals who flourish see frequent travel as an integral part of their happiness and identity, while those floundering view travel as a source of unhappiness that impacts on their health and psycho-social wellbeing. The researchers also found that employees who want to travel less usually don’t initiate changes, believing it’s beyond their control. 

The report, The Dark Side of Business Travel: A Media Comments Analysis, concludes that it’s up to businesses to develop policies that protect their employees from the downside of business travel.

Business class is worth it

Dr Ted Dunstone is CEO of Biometix, a company that consults with governments around the world on immigration biometric systems. Dunstone breezes through airports in the same way as George Clooney’s character. In 2017 alone, he travelled from his Canberra base to London six times, Washington DC five times, and Wellington, New Zealand three times. Over his years of frequent flying, he’s learned how to optimise his travel. 

“For many years, I wouldn’t pay for business-class travel – I’d try and upgrade on points,” says Dunstone. “Now I realise that if I’m not travelling business class, I’m no good to my business and no good at home. Being able to get a good night’s sleep when you’re changing time zones makes all the difference, but if I’m flying to Asia then I don’t need to fly business.” 

“Being able to get a good night’s sleep when you’re changing time zones makes all the difference …” Ted Dunstone, Biometix

He’s applied these insights to his 12 employees. “If you cut corners by taking a cheaper flight, you might save a little bit of money but cost yourself a lot more because your employees might be late for meetings or not be in good condition when they get there,” he says. 

“It’s also important that, as a company, you don’t penny-pinch over expenses. You don’t go through them with a fine-tooth comb and say, ‘Oh, you had a coffee – did you have that by yourself or with a business colleague?’ They’re away from home – they’re entitled to a certain amount of discretion on how they spend their allowance while they’re away.”

Apply fair travel policies

Brisbane’s Kylie Sprott is chief transformation officer for Xenith IP Group, which provides trademark, patent and intellectual property services. With a background in human resources and cultural change, she’s spent decades helping a range of companies develop policies in areas such as travel. 

“I haven’t come across anyone who’s complained about travelling – it’s more about the class of travel or the airline,” says Sprott, who catches a plane up to three times a week. “If you’re doing international travel and you’re going Qantas business class, no one seems to mind too much – particularly if you’re working for an organisation where there’s an expectation you’ll put in a full day when you arrive at your destination. Some companies, if they have paid for business class, expect you to hit the ground running.” 

Managers, she says, should know employees’ circumstances before imposing travel requirements. “They should know if their partner’s working or if the employee has got kids or animals that need looking after when they’re away, because not everyone can pick up and go. Sometimes it causes enormous stress on someone if they don’t have that stuff under control.” 

Sprott advises implementing a travel policy that’s applied across the board, rather than having different perks for different levels of seniority, and taking advantage of video-conferencing technology to reduce travel. 

Make sleep part of the job

“Poor sleep is the enemy of good business – the enlightened employer is starting to think about his or her employees’ sleep,” says Professor David Hillman, a sleep physician at Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital in Perth and deputy chair of the Sleep Health Foundation. 

“If you’re only going away for a day or two, stay on your [point of origin] time and organise meetings accordingly – don’t organise them for a time when your brain’s programmed to be fast asleep, such as when it’s midnight to dawn back home.”

To adjust to a new time zone, Hillman advises dozing on the plane so you can stay awake until evening at your destination, and using the morning light to reprogram your brain. “Light and dark is what cues your internal body clock – it’s a very powerful rhythm,” he explains. “That rhythm is capable of readjustment but it takes time to do so.” 

Taking melatonin (a hormone that regulates sleep and waking) 60 to 90 minutes before bed “works well for jet lag”, he says. 

Screen time before bed can also affect your body clock, as the screen’s blue light suppresses melatonin production. 

Hillman has a solution. “You can get apps for your iPhone [turn on Night Shift in settings] or computer that cut the blue light coming from the screen.”

It’s a simple step, but one that could help you flourish as a business traveller. 

Professional Development: CPA Q&A. Access a handpicked selection of resources each month and complete a short monthly assessment to earn CPD hours. Exclusively available to CPA Australia members.

Other ways to beat business-travel stress

Streamline the wardrobe
Xenith IP Group’s Kylie Sprott packs only black and cream, or black and white clothing. “I’ve been to Canada for two weeks with one carry-on bag in winter because I stuck to one colour palette,” she says. “Everything in my bag must go with at least two other items,” she adds.

See the destination
 “Schedule two or three hours for exploring the place because often all you get to see is the conference or meeting room,” says Sprott. “Sometimes you’re in an exotic location but there isn’t even a window.” One of her best experiences away was at a Melbourne conference that included a walking food tour. 

Schedule a highlight
Andrew Williams, chief executive of Voyages Indigenous Tourism Australia, travels to Ayers Rock Resort 12 times a year. “It can be easy to fill the whole duration of your stay with work, but you should try to incorporate something that gives you a small life experience while you’re there,” he says. “Watching the sun set over Uluru and Kata Tjuta and enjoying dinner under the stars is a unique experience.” 

Remember those at home
 “If you’re travelling and have a partner who needs to look after the kids, you need to be mindful of the fact that when you come home, you owe them time – even though you’re exhausted from your trip,” says Biometix founder Ted Dunstone, a frequent traveller and father of two. “It’s important to look after them because if they’re not happy with you going away, and don’t understand the reasons for it, then you have a very unhappy home life or you can’t do it [travel].”

Read next: 10 great apps for business travel


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February 2018
February 2018

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