November 17, 2014
Don’t Let Frequent Business Travel Ruin Your Health

Frequent business travel is often a fact of life for people who want not only to survive but also thrive in the global economy.

Frequent travel can be an exciting, productive and fulfilling part of any career. Unfortunately, frequent travel also comes with a substantial health cost. This cost not only increases personal suffering, but also may undermine effectiveness at work.

The bottom line is that many of us need to sacrifice more in order to be productive, even if it means regularly traveling to different cities or countries. Accepting the reality of frequent business travel while improving sustainability of frequent travel is of critical importance to anyone who wants long-term success.

Research shows that frequent business travel puts our health at risk. There is a substantial body of literature on traveler’s risks of infectious disease and foodborne contamination, but data also shows that business travel is associated with cardiovascular-related risks and mental health outcomes.

study using de-identified medical record data from EHE International assessed links between business travel and health for 13,000 people.  The results were striking and disturbing. People who were on the road for at least two weeks a month had a higher body mass index and worse self-rated health than light travelers. True road warriors, those on the road for more than 21 days a month, had less “good cholesterol” and higher blood pressure.

This research confirmed the results of a prior study of medical insurance claims of 10,884 staff and consultants at the World Bank. Overall, for all medical claims, rates of insurance claims were 80 percent higher for male travelers and 18 percent higher for female travelers as compared to their non-traveling counterparts. The largest increase in health claims was for psychological disorders, particularly for stress-related disorders.

While employees and business owners may feel that this sacrifice is worthwhile because of improved business productivity, the health consequences may have the opposite effect.

For example, psychological disorders such as depression are substantial risk for poor productivity at work. Further, stress, depression or associated fatigue may be one of the reasons that employees leave their jobs; research suggests that employees may leave their workplace because of emotional exhaustion.

So why does frequent traveling undermine our health and wellbeing? Sleep can be disrupted because of need to catch early or late flights or because of time zone changes. Healthy eating is often compromised, as people do not have the ability to buy or prepare healthy foods that they would if shopping and cooking at home. Further, travelers are often compelled to attend business events that usually include unhealthy food and alcohol. Likewise, exercise schedules can be disrupted by fatigue or by inadequate facilities in hotels.

Frequent travel can be stressful not only on the traveler, but on the traveler’s family. Knowing that we are causing our families stress places additional burden on frequent travelers, causing a cycle of stress and poor health.

But often we give ourselves permission to indulge while engaging in frequent travel, the result of a “permission-giving belief.” This concept, developed 20 years ago by Aaron Beck and his colleagues, describes the rationale of people who allow themselves to engage in unhealthy behaviors. Permission-giving beliefs for frequent travelers such as allowing for unhealthy food, less exercise, more alcohol may relieve the stress of travel. However, the long-term effects can be very damaging.

So what can you do? Here are six suggestions.

1. Acknowledge how difficult this process can be

While it is helpful to hear encouragement, it is often discouraging when well-intentioned people suggest that travel is easy.

2. Stay in the moment

By focusing on the moment, you not only develop your ability to follow your health plan, but you interfere with the dangerous tendency to give up over long periods of time — like the weeks traveling.

3. Think of the larger goals in your life

For example, if you are trying to manage your diabetes to live longer to see your loved ones, try to focus on that while traveling. This will not only provide motivation, but also increase your happiness in the moment.

4. Try not to engage in all-or-nothing thinking

If you can’t go to a gym for an hour, at least try to do calisthenics in your hotel room for 15 minutes. If you are at a conference, stand rather than sit during the speaker sessions. If you can’t eat prepared healthy meals at home, try to find the healthiest thing on the menu.

5. Give yourself healthy rewards that counterbalance the loss of enjoyment in the moment

A massage, guilty pleasure TV or buying favorite magazines are all possibilities while traveling.

6. Plan ahead for when you want to be unhealthy while traveling

For example, don’t just eat less appealing food at the airport; make sure you eat the foods you most enjoy. This will allow you to get the most satisfaction for the calories.

Frequent travel can be a rewarding experience with a tremendous upside to your career. But if you don’t make sure to minimize the health risks, frequent travel can actually have the opposite effect, making you not only unhealthy but also less effective at your job. If you keep trying to improve your health even when faced with difficult travel, everyone wins.

Michael Friedman and Andrew Rundle
Dr. Mike Friedman is a clinical psychologist in Manhattan and a member of EHE International’s Medical Advisory Board. Dr. Andrew Rundle is an Epidemiologist at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health and a Member of EHE International’s Medical Advisory Board. Follow EHE on Twitter.

Other Articles by Michael Friedman:

How Should You Address Mental Health In The Workplace?