Although most people equate business travel to a rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, those who live it on a regular basis tend to have a rather different experience. Indeed, few unpleasant things are as glamorized as frequent business travel, particularly in light of the overwhelming evidence for its detrimental psychological, social, and physical effects.
As a recent review of past scientific studies noted, frequent business travel, especially long-haul travel, accelerates aging and increases the likelihood of suffering a stroke, heart attack, and deep-vein thrombosis. It also exposes travelers to pathological levels of germs and radiation. If you fly over 85,000 miles per year, you are absorbing radiation levels above the regulatory limit of most countries. (There are even academic journals, such as the Journal of Travel Medicine and Travel Medicine and Infectious Disease, dedicated almost exclusively to the toxic effects of travel.)
As if all this weren’t enough, frequent
leads to unhealthy lifestyles (e.g., poor diet, lack of exercise, excess drinking), while jet lag causes stress, mood swings, disorientation, sleep problems, and gastrointestinal problems, all of which impair job performance. Over 70% of business travelers report some of these symptoms even when they travel across only one time zone, and it has been estimated that jet lag recovery time may take one day for every time zone crossed.
These effects have been recently exacerbated by the fact that the relationship between business and business class travel has been substantially weakened, as companies have looked to cut costs. While it may still be true that most of those cushy business class seats are occupied by business travelers, it is also true that most business travelers only see those seats when they board or get off the plane, as many airlines make economy passengers do the “walk of shame” through business class.
Clearly, then, there is a high price for reaching top frequent flyer status, even when you don’t have to pay for your flights. And while a few individuals may be resilient enough to cope with the adverse effects of frequent travel, that does not imply that their families and friends will remain unaffected by it.
You and Your Team
Yes — at least according to the science. First, in-person meetings have been found to increase rapport and empathy, facilitating cooperation and enhancing bonds between the parties. Mirror neurons, which enable us to take other people’s perspective and feel what they are feeling, are more likely to fire in the physical presence of others. Second, meta-analytic reviews indicate that, compared to face-to-face communication, virtual or remote communication is more likely to lead to decreases in both satisfaction and effectiveness among team members, and increases in the time it takes to get work done. Physical distance has been similarly found to impair team performance, mostly by undermining team cohesiveness and communication. Thus, even when remote conversations seem more efficient and focused, they achieve less. Third, studies on leadership suggest that it is easier for leaders to build and maintain high-performing teams when they have frequent physical contact with their subordinates.
But support at home is key. Having a high level of support at home can strongly mitigate the negative health consequences of frequent travel. Indeed, social support is an important coping mechanism against the strain of all kinds of work-family conflict.
Thus in moderation, with the right support, and when your job makes sense and you feel equipped to perform it, work travel is more helpful than harmful. And even when that isn’t the case, business travelers often have other incentives to put up with the dark side of travel — like the “enriching experiences, social and professional status and cosmopolitan identity” that travel can provide.
Finally, although individual experiences matter, it is important to evaluate the effects that business travel has on the collective and society. As scholars have noted, in an age of globalization, changing world powers, and rapid economic development and growth, it would be incoherent to conduct business remotely. Studies also report that international business travel boosts innovation and economic prosperity: “a 10% increase in business travel leads to an increase in patenting by about 0.3%.” Another recent investigation concluded that each international business trip increases U.S. exports to the country visited by over $36K per annum. Then there is the business travel industry, which in the U.S. alone is worth around $300 billion.
In short, business travel is not as desirable as laypeople think, and though it may seem hard to feel sorry for the hypermobile business elite there is no doubt that frequent executive travel is noxious and demanding. But it appears that the end justifies the means. Now excuse me, but I have to board my next plane…