International travel is a natural part of today’s borderless and interlinked business environment. As noted in my previous post on this topic, global business travel is accessible and, even more importantly, brings benefits to multinational companies. Yet, as usual, possible benefits come with possible risks.
Foremost, business travel is accompanied by travel stress. For example, research by HEC Paris and Carlson Wagonlit Travel of seven thousand business travelers indicated 33 possible stressors, ranging from lost baggage to jetlag. Specifically, the research indicated three major stress categories, which are lost time, unforeseen events, and routine breakers.
However, travel stress is not necessarily related only to the hassles of actual travel during the trip, but may have much larger causes and effects. In my previous post I mentioned that business travel affects both the business traveler and traveler’s family. Indeed, as highlighted in a recent Financial Times article, business travel may have quite negative effects on close relationships with family members. Writing based on her own clinical experience, psychotherapist Naomi Shragai points out that frequent work travelers may experience feelings of guilt and loneliness, while trying to deal with resentment, dissatisfaction and frustration of their partner and kids. The stories, brought up in the article, indicate that there are several facets to the problem.
First of all, it is about the difficulties of returning home from business travel. On one hand, there are happy feelings related to family reunion. Yet, these happy moments may not last long and may give in to all the pent-up feelings, which have accumulated during the separation period. For example, kids might have been hurt by the traveler’s absence during some important events, while the traveler’s spouse might feel abandoned with the home responsibilities. Naturally, time back at home can be meant for ‘making-up’ for the previous absence, let’s say by spending extra time with kids and giving the spouse a rest from household duties. Sounds fair, right? Fair, but quite unlikely. Similar to the notion that expats have less work-life balance abroad than at home, I would argue that international business traveler may also feel the decreased balance. When returning from business trips, travelers return to their work routines back at home, which does not really allow for any extra family time. Moreover, I believe that everyone with at least the slightest experience of business trips can agree that, while being away, the amount of TO DO’s back in one’s home office is just multiplying, resulting in an increased work load upon return (at least temporarily).
Secondly, what clearly came up in the FT article is that, although business travelers are aware of the possible problems, they are largely aggravating the situations themselves. Specifically, business travelers may be using such maladaptive coping strategies as problem avoidance. As mentioned in a couple of examples in the FT article, business travelers may opt for more trips than necessary to escape uncomfortable family situations, as well as avoid honest conversations with family members so as not to feel bad about themselves. Although avoidance of problems and uneasy conversations may work quite well in the short term, in the long run it only worsens the situation.
As for some suggestions to business travelers in these situations, potential distress of all the parties involved may be eased by keeping regularly in touch while away, preparing family members for the time of separation, and openly talking through the mutual feelings, expectations and experiences.
In addition, I believe that multinational companies can also do their share of addressing these problems. Although international business travelers may be beneficial for maintaining and growing company revenues, the long-term well-being of their employees should remain their top priority. As such, multinationals should look into what constitutes a healthy level of business travel, trying to replace some of it for instance by telecommuting.