The negative health effects of business travel are your employer’s problem, too

Can you travel for work and find inner peace? Not likely.
Can you travel for work and find inner peace? Not likely.
Image: Reuters/Jorge Silva
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Consider, for a moment, the robust subculture of the business world’s vaunted road warriors. There are credit-card perks and business-class upgrades, elite clubs for hotel status-bearers, and boozy client dinners you’re entitled to put on the company credit card.

Indeed, judging by the veneration of the points and miles world, you’d be right to think that spending half your life on business trips should be the goal of every ambitious corporate worker.

However, the reality isn’t quite so rosy. Beyond the existing research connecting poor longterm health outcomes like obesity and cardiovascular disease with frequent business travel, there’s new evidence that factors like lack of sleep, poor food choices, more time spent sedentary, and stresses of travel could also be having a deleterious impact on travelers’ health in a more immediate sense. In other words, your business trip might be affecting your health not just in the long run, but the week after you get back, too.

A study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine in December found that as the number of nights away from home for business travel rose, “poorer behavioral and mental health outcomes significantly increased.” The researchers found that people who traveled for business 14 or more nights per month were most at risk for these negative symptoms. This represented 12% of employees who traveled for work, based on 18,328 employees who underwent a health assessment with corporate wellness company EHE International.

The health cost takes a toll on companies, too, the researchers found.

“Behavioral and mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, poor sleep and alcohol dependence can create immediate costs through reduced employee productivity and performance, absenteeism, presenteeism, short-term disability, and possibly strained or severed relationships with suppliers,” the researchers wrote. Anyone who’s ever been on a business trip Monday to Wednesday and expected to be in the office Thursday for a 9am meeting can probably relate. Late-night dinners with clients and bosses, unfamiliar sleeping arrangements, changing time zones, dismal airport food options, and disruption of one’s exercise regimen all mean that employees end up feeling subpar—when all they’ve done is their job.

Writing in the Harvard Business Review last week, the new study’s lead researcher, Andrew Rundle, said that responsibility for staying healthy can’t just fall to the employee. He argues that employers have a responsibility to both inform their employees that frequent business travel could lead to poorer health, and offer reasonable policies to mitigate this. These include stress-management programs, cognitive behavioral therapy, and ensuring accommodations come with well-equipped fitness facilities and healthy food options.

But of course the most simple precaution of all, he noted, might just be “pausing to examine whether you actually need to be on the road frequently.”