Wellbeing in the workplace has recently risen to prominence on HR’s agenda – but the risks of business travel can be overlooked. We explore how HR can protect and support employees on the road
Business travel is often seen by employees and HR alike as a perk of the job – and one particularly associated with making your way up the corporate ladder. A recent survey by travel provider Booking.com for Business found that a third (30%) of business travellers would take a lower-paying job if they could travel more for work, while research from LateRooms.com Business suggests that 41% of workers want to do more business travel.
But with a new study by Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health finding that employees who travel for business for two or more weeks per month are putting themselves at greater risk of mental and physical health problems than those workers who travel less frequently, is it time to rethink the necessity of business travel – and how HR supports those who spend much of their working life on the road? Is extensive travel still necessary, given recent advances in communication technology, and compatible with organisations’ stated ambitions to care for the health and wellbeing of their workers?
Many organisations are waking up to the fact that ill health is a significant cause of low productivity. Time lost to ill health and presenteeism has jumped in the past year, from 27.5 days in 2016 to 30.4 days in 2017, according to a recent report from VitalityHealth. It’s estimated these lost days cost the UK economy £77.5 billion in 2017.
With UK employees making 7.1 million overseas business trips in 2016, the scale of the potential impact of travel-related health problems shouldn’t be underestimated, says Sir Cary Cooper, 50th anniversary professor of organisational psychology and health at Alliance Manchester Business School: “Travelling and a lack of sleep can result in poor decision-making, and a lack of attention to detail that could affect the business.” Difficulty sleeping in unfamiliar rooms, and the stress of being away from family and friends for prolonged periods, can take their toll on employees’ health and performance, he adds.
Birgit Lundgren, head of clinical services at Validum, which provides employee wellbeing training and support, agrees. “People who travel a lot can end up feeling very isolated and lonely – telephone calls just aren’t the same. This feeling can also continue once they get home and realise that they’re not an integral part of their partner’s routine or children’s lives.
“When we feel cut off and isolated from others, our bodies enter into a heightened state of stress that floods our body with cortisol, shortening our breath, tensing our muscles and increasing our heart rate,” says Lundgren. “The impact of prolonged loneliness on our health is worse than smoking 15 cigarettes a day; it increases the risk of heart disease by 29%, and the risk of stroke by 32%.”
These problems are most acute among business travellers, rather than employees whose roles inherently contain a lot of travel, such as lorry drivers or flight attendants, says Charlotte Cross, director at the Better Health at Work Alliance: “Wellbeing concerns easily arise when an employee is taken out of their preferred working environment.”
Andrew Rundle, associate professor of epidemiology at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, who worked on the new study, says both employers and employees need to rethink their attitudes towards regular business travel.
“Employees who travel extensively need to take responsibility for the decisions they make around diet, exercise, alcohol consumption, and sleep. However, to do this, employees will likely need support in the form of education, training, and a corporate culture that emphasises healthy business travel. Employers should provide employees with accommodation that has access to physical activity facilities and healthy food options.”
One of the most effective ways of supporting the wellbeing of employees while they are on the road is to seek opportunities for colleagues to travel and stay together, says Lundgren. “Even if they’re working on different projects during the day, having a colleague to eat with and talk to in the evening can have huge emotional benefits.
“If this isn’t possible, employees should proactively seek out opportunities for staying socially connected with others, be this using the Meetup app to find other business people who want to socialise while away, opting to stay with a host family instead of in a hotel when they travel, or using time away from family to call friends they haven’t spoken to in a while.”
HR should also help managers understand their responsibility to care for employees’ wellbeing, says Lundgren. “As well as contacting them to check that they got the sale, or some other result they were travelling to achieve, they should also ask them how they’re doing and if they’re managing to look after themselves.” Putting an employee assistance programme (EAP) in place can help to ease the strain.
Cooper says HR should also be encouraging managers to reconsider if every business trip is strictly necessary. “It’s understandable that face-to-face meetings are required under certain circumstances, but why make trips for internal meetings? “Employers shouldn’t put pressure on employees to travel needlessly. Instead, the use of communications technology should be explored as a replacement for as much business travel as possible.”
However much support HR and managers can put in place to help high-frequency travellers stay fit and well, the ultimate responsibility for wellbeing rests with employees. “They need to be mindful of how well they are looking after themselves, and not do things that push them from feeling positively challenged to feeling negatively strained,” says Lundgren.
Employees would do well to “show a lot of common sense” when it comes to work-related travel, says Cross. “They need to think about rest, movement, diet and sleep – and talk to their employers when they experience issues. Then their managers, or HR teams, can step in and make adjustments.”