How Business Travel Affects Health and Productivity

by Health, Productivity

Think you're doomed to be a fat traveler?

Spend your weekends catching up from the tarmac treadmill?

Is your company supporting your quest to be healthy and productive on the road?

In 2013, Carlson Wagonlit Travel (CWT) and CWT Solutions Group Travel Stress Index published results from an extensive survey completed by over 6,000 business travelers. Activities were calculated by “stress-free” and “lost” time when traveling.

The average length of time lost was 6.9 hours. That's almost an entire workday! Flying economy class on medium and long haul flights and getting to and from the airport or train station caused the greatest loss of time. The financial equivalent upper limit was $662.00. For international trips, the lost time is 15.6 hours. This insight is important from a task and time management perspective.

A woman in my mastermind group recently traveled and was ambitious in how much she thought she could get done while on a cross-country trip and a few nights in a hotel. My rule is this: whatever I think I can get done on the road, I cut by 1/3. There are too many circumstances out of my control, i.e. air travel, delays, weather, poor hotel internet, that can affect my productivity. Working constantly onsite, on the plane and in the hotel is also a bad idea because it's not the amount of work that burns you out; it's the lack of renewal.

Traveler Stress Triggers

The main stressors found in the survey were:

  • Lost or Delayed Baggage: Affects time, money ( the company won't reimburse for new clothes and airlines won't reimburse if you receive returned bag within 24 hours!). This category received the highest stress score among all factors for women and across all demographic segments.
  •  Poor Internet connection: Lost productivity and communication with colleagues and family was a significantly higher stressor for women. I meet clients via Zoom or Google Hangout, and    hotels are notorious for having slow Internet. Extended Stay America Hotels® offers an upgrade in speed for streaming.
  •  Flying economy on medium/long haul flights: Inability to work or rest. Economy flights are more stressful for men and older travelers.
  •  Delays: Affects time, routine, the stress of missing a meeting or prep time, and getting to a hotel late at night.

What these resulted in:

  •    Lost time: The inability to work due to an Internet connection, cramped plane, excessive driving.
  •    Surprises: Includes losing baggage, airline delays, getting lost.

Significant differences to note:

  •    Women experienced more travel stress than men, specifically in the areas of lost or delayed baggage, the inability to eat healthy and poor Internet connectivity.
  •    Not surprising, travelers who had over 30 trips per year experienced more of a cumulative effect of stress; however, they were more skilled at tackling surprises.
  •    Travelers with partners, whether they had children or not, had much higher stress when required to travel on weekends or more than three days at a time. Travelers with children and older travelers, however, have fewer issues with working long hours at their destination.

A study done by the National Institute of Health on international travelers reported that one-third of 498 respondents had high to very high levels of travel stress. Travelers were three times more likely to use health insurance for treatment of psychological disorders and have medical claims, than non-travelers. The more frequent the travel, the more numerous the claims.  

The top three stressors for international travelers in this study were:

  •    Impact on family and sense of isolation,
  •    Health concerns of jet lag or worries about health and safety, and
  •    Workload upon return from travel.

Most respondents thought it necessary to take a rest day after international travel but rarely did it. Two-thirds reported that their managers rarely or never formally granted a rest day, yet 60% said that approved time off would help them cope better. If the workload is high when travelers return, they may feel even more overwhelmed by taking a day off.

Frequent traveling can have benefits resulting in travelers being more adaptable, culturally-savvy and able to work the system as much as possible to get the benefits. When I first started traveling, I was so naïve. I used to teach a 3-5 week course to staff, most of which were new to business travel. I never took it for granted that they knew the ins and outs of travel, or even that they should tip the hotel maid. I loved teaching them the travel aspect of their job, as much I loved teaching them how to do clinical research.

Ideas for companies to implement:

  •  Remote or home-based work before and after the trip.
  •  A compensation day for travel on the weekends. This isn’t just nice. It’s fair.
  •  Allowing travelers to have more convenient departure and arrival times. Having the options to fly in the night before to ease the stress of delays and be able to get a morning workout in or    spend the night after a meeting rather than take a red-eye or get home in the wee hours rates high.
  •  Convenient hotel locations.
  •  Reduce or eliminate last-minute trips as much as possible to alleviate the stress of planned events or daily routines with family/pets. A study by the Centers for Disease Control noted this as  a high stressor for travelers.
  •  Concierge services to help with errands, pet sitting, etc.
  •  Reimbursement for Global Entry or TSA Pre-Check status.
  •  Dedicated administrative support to help with booking travel (total time-suck) and completing expense reports. This is something my clients, which are higher-level employees and business  owners, consider a full waste of their time and are often well behind in submission. Neither are stressful on their own; they are seen as low-priority.
  •  Seat upgrades to at least Priority seating for medium and long haul flights. Carlson Wagonlit Travel estimates that a company is saving one million dollars a year in economy, loses three million dollars a year in lost productivity and traveler stress. The higher the position of the employee, the more impact on dollars lost during productive time.
  •  Direct flights even though they cost more. I'm always shocked how many companies make a traveler fly in multiple legs at savings of a couple hundred bucks but don't consider that it takes  them three extra hours of lost time to get there.
  •  Realize that travelers are constantly trying to “catch-up” when they travel. They shouldn’t be catching up because their workload accumulates when they travel because the travel is part of  their job. Their workload either needs to be decreased during that time or more support provided.

Business travel isn't part of your job. It's a lifestyle™. If you are a traveler, forward this to a decision-maker. If you're the decision-maker, start implementing at least one of these changes for better health and productivity from your road warriors.

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Your Weekender Snapshot and Tim Ferriss’s Five Bullet Friday are my favorite emails I receive.
jim west

Principal and Managing Director, GFF Architects