The term ‘business travel’ tends to evoke images of glamorous lifestyles and all-expenses-paid stop-overs in beautiful destinations.
While this might be the case for a few ‘lucky’ high-flyers, in truth frequent business class flights merely provide a momentary respite for the mind and body, before another city is viewed from the back of a car (albeit privately driven and probably a Merc!) en route to meetings.
With companies increasingly taking advantage of red-eye flights, travelling for work is part of daily life for many people – with business travel set to escalate 7 per cent by 2020.
The very nature of air travel means early starts, late nights, disrupted sleep, jet lag, unhealthy food and lack of exercise, not to mention physical ailments emerging over time, including poor immunity, postural aches and pains, chest and heart problems.
In addition, plane passengers have to cope with air cabin pressure, as well as breathing in contaminated air – yes, you are breathing in engine oils and other fluids.
On the psychological side, frequent flyers are dealing with cultural challenges, time away from family and friends, feelings of isolation and a lack of work-life balance – often resulting in depression, emotional distancing from loved ones and unhappiness. Evidence from a recent study I conducted – interviewing 52 international business travellers from all corners of the globe – suggests professionals who travel for work are acutely prone to, and at high risk of, ill health. The very act of travel, and its associated lifestyle, appears to activate and fuel serious conditions such as burnout.
Burnout can act like a disease, affecting people personally and professionally, in ways never imagined. The worrying aspect is that the warning signs are often ignored.
There can be an almost arrogant belief that life will continue as usual, resulting in a lack of willingness or commitment to implement behavioural changes. As a result, burnout can hit like a train, leaving the individual without many of the things they have worked for, including their career, family and health.
So, how can you recognise burnout in yourself and others? Burnout follows a staged process, starting with exhaustion, followed closely by cynical thoughts and finally, a reduced belief in your ability to succeed. Once the latter has manifested, it is difficult to crawl back from. This begs the question: what can I do? I emphasise the word “I”, as the power and choice lies with you.
Evidence from another global survey I conducted on well-being in frequent flyers, revealed that achieving good recovery is essential – particularly on frequent, long or demanding trips.
There are four key aspects to achieving a positive state of mind and body while on a trip: psychologically detaching from work and those daily tasks that drain you; relaxing your body and mind; embracing new challenges; and taking control. If you can incorporate these four, you will feel good and function well.
You can psychologically detach by switching off your phone, resisting the temptation to check emails and simply enjoy being in your new location. Relaxation is characterised by the reduced emotional activity of the mind, relaxation of muscles and increased positive thinking. This can be achieved by practising mindfulness at airport security; progressive muscle relaxation on the flight; or walking in your new surroundings on arrival at your destination.
We all love to expand our horizons – it improves our self-worth. Thankfully, most places are filled with opportunities to learn or take on a new challenge. You’ll get more out of a trip, and feel energised, if you put some effort in – but remember not to over-tax yourself.
Finally, take control over what you do, when and how – don’t be fooled into thinking that a particular client dinner counts. Introduce choice – it will bring a sense of happiness and escapism, so you are fresh when you are needed most.
Figure out what matters and get the process right. It may seem simple, but by taking some time to think about how you can incorporate recovery into your trip, your journey will be void of burnout.
Lucy Rattrie is a chartered psychologist, consultant and lecturer in the Division of Management, Work and Organisation, Stirling Management School at the University of Stirling.