Prevent business travel from becoming a journey to ill health

Studies show frequent business travel can cause chronic long-term health problems

Those who travel 20 or more nights per month typically have higher blood pressure, BMI and HDL cholesterol than those who travel no more than six nights a month, studies have shown. Photographer: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg

Those who travel 20 or more nights per month typically have higher blood pressure, BMI and HDL cholesterol than those who travel no more than six nights a month, studies have shown. Photographer: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg

 

The reality for those who travel extensively for work in planes, trains and automobiles is that it can be exhausting and highly disruptive to social and family life. Consistent red-eye, long-haul or late-night flights upset the body’s natural rhythms, while traffic jams and flight delays are stressful. It becomes a challenge to eat well, get sufficient exercise and avoid the upper respiratory illnesses that seem to go hand in hand with frequent flying.

A number of studies have analysed the impact of constant business travel on people’s health and, in broad terms, the findings are negative. It accelerates ageing and can cause chronic long-term health problems.

Those who travel 20 or more nights per month are most at risk. They typically have higher blood pressure, body mass index and HDL cholesterol than those who travel no more than six nights a month.

The factors contributing to these poorer health outcomes are the usual suspects: high-sugar/high-fat foods, little or inconsistent exercise, jet lag and disrupted sleep. Frequent travellers may also underestimate or conceal just how much it takes out of them and, as a result, don’t allow themselves sufficient time to recover and don’t develop coping strategies to manage the associated stress.

The experts say that, while you will get away with the stress, poor eating and insufficient exercise in your 20s and 30s, by the time you hit your 40s, the consequences begin to manifest themselves in conditions such as hypertension, muscular-skeletal problems, type-2 diabetes, gastrointestinal issues and excess weight. Alcohol abuse can also become a problem.

Hypermobility

The rapid rise in passenger numbers transiting through major airports shows just how mobile people now are. Perpetual motion has become the social norm but this is happening at some cost, according to Prof Scott Cohen, head of the department of tourism and transport at the University of Surrey, and Stefan Gossling of Lund University in Sweden, whose joint study, The Dark Side of Business Travel, investigated what they describe as “a darker side of hypermobility”.

In their study, the authors examine the consequences of frequent business (and leisure) travel under three headings: physiological, psychological and emotional and social. They argue that the drawbacks tend to be overshadowed by the popular representation of business travel as glamorous.

“Travel is glamorised by a range of social mechanisms, such as visualisations on social media that encourage mobility competition, frequent-flyer programme status levels and the mass media and travel industry that depict tourism and business travel as desirable.”

The authors divide frequent business travellers into the “flourishing hypermobile” and the “floundering hypermobile”. People in the first group either deny the health implications of frequent business travel or are proactive in trying to mitigate them, while people in the second group portray themselves as passive and powerless.

“The findings reveal a segment of business travellers who wish to reduce travel, but perceive this as beyond their locus of control,” the authors say. “Business travel reductions are thus unlikely to happen through the agency of individual travellers, but rather by changes in the structural factors that influence human resource and corporate travel management policies.”

In other words, it’s going to take a major shift in how organisations think about what constitutes necessary travel.

Planning ahead

That’s the gloomy perspective and, of course, there are many who feel either neutral about business travel or find it energising and exciting. Whichever camp you’re in, it’s possible to mitigate the risks with a bit of effort.

Nutrition and fitness coach Alva O’Sullivan says avoiding travel burnout is all about keeping your energy levels consistent, so how you eat on the run is critical. When you’re tired and hungry, the lure of fast food or a sweet treat is powerful but planning ahead can help resist it.

“You have a routine when you pack your bag the night before, so include some healthy snacks such as oatcakes and nut butter, wholegrain crackers with cheese and raw nuts,” she says. “Keep hydrated but avoid overloading on caffeine and don’t use alcohol as a ‘reward’ for your tiring day.

“If you’re faced with poor food choices, pick the least processed options and those with the fewest ingredients – soups, stews, natural yogurt, fruit, simple wholegrain sandwiches. Get up from your seat or out of the car and move regularly and try to take some exercise on arrival. Don’t go straight to bed after a heavy meal. It will affect your sleep with knock-on effects for your energy the next day.”

Surviving business travel

– Pack ultra-light.

– Leave essential items – toiletries, chargers, etc – permanently in your travel bag.

– Pack healthy snacks. Avoid things that melt or spill. 

– Stay hydrated.

– Invest in good-quality noise-cancelling earplugs.

– Avoid constant red-eye or late-night flights.

– Manage stress. Do whatever helps you chill out. – Choose hotels with leisure facilities.

– Pay to use executive lounges. They’re quiet and offer easy access to food/drinks/wifi.

– Ditch a heavy laptop for a lighter model to avoid developing neck and shoulder pain. 

– Routines can help manage jet lag as can flights that maximise the opportunity to sleep.

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