Business Travel Blues: Something Stressful in the Air
Biting the flight attendant? Having a mid-flight temper tantrum? Although it sounds uncivilized, more and more air travelers are exhibiting their own versions of road rage, caused in part by the stressors of business travel.
Millions of business people across the nation pull double duty—keeping the home fires burning while taking care of business on the road. Unfortunately, whether you travel three days a year or three weeks a month, stress generated from trying to keep all the balls in the air can damage your effectiveness at home and on the job.
"Stress causes tunnel vision and actually endangers us physically and psychologically," says Bill Bruzy, director of the Austin Men's Center in Austin, Texas. "We are likely to make mistakes, damage relationships, and hurt ourselves because we [are too stressed and] can't see what we're doing."
It's Your Choice
There is an alternative. Although many elements of work, personal life, and business travel are outside your sphere of influence, you can control some contributing factors. And even the effects of those elements outside your direct control can still be moderated by your responses.
Stressors can be classified into one of two categories—internal or external. Jonathan Bricker, a doctoral candidate at the University of Washington and co-author of a recent study on business travel with psychology professor Irwin Sarason, says, "Travel stress—like a lot of life stress—is a function of the person and the situation." Though you may be unable to change either your personality or your work assignments to any large extent, you can work with your individual circumstances and character to develop coping mechanisms to reduce stress and its by-products. "There are lots of things that are within people's control," says Bricker.
Inside and Out
External elements include things like delayed flights, traveling to a strange city, or giving a presentation to a full house—all of which cause stress, depending on your particular anxiety buttons. By examining the issues that stress you, Bricker says, you can prepare yourself.
For instance, if traveling to an unfamiliar city makes you anxious, you can arrange for a car and driver or carry maps of the city. If flight delays irritate you to the boiling point, carry a book or newspaper to distract you and calm you down. Jim G., a Boston frequent-flyer, keeps crossword puzzle books in his briefcase for those times when his flight is delayed. "I get so into solving the puzzles, that I tend to forget that I've been sitting in the same airport chair for five hours longer than I had planned."
Because "there are individual differences in how much people get upset in travel situations," Bricker says, you must evaluate your own stressors and create ways to address them. He suggests taking a few minutes before a trip to determine some of the elements that might cause anxiety, and then develop some coping mechanisms.
Stress is emotional, psychological, and physical, and therefore exists largely within each of us. People who are more anxiety-prone can still mediate their responses to stress by using a combination of physical and mental processes.
Barbara Close, owner of the Naturopathica Spa in East Hampton, New York, suggests techniques such as massage, progressive relaxation, and visualization to calm yourself. Whether you're in the midst of a trans-Atlantic flight or sitting through an all-day meeting, something as simple as deep breathing or getting up from your seat and taking a quick stretch can help. "It allows you to step back and not get caught up in the vicious cycle of go-go-go," she says.
Home Away From Home
One of the most neglected aspects of work travel is the stress arising from being away from home. Business travel can make your job a 24-hour-a-day affair, and personal life has no role. But all work and no play—even in small blocks—often results in burnout. No one knows this better than top management consultants, who traditionally spend weeks away from their home base.
Because of the constant threat of burnout, companies have implemented classes and workshops such as the "personal survival" series at PricewaterhouseCoopers, where employees are taught that stress management is as much of a business skill as negotiation or project management. Kathryn Franklin, PhD, a workshop leader for the work-life quality initiative at PricewaterhouseCoopers, says the secondary effects of being away from friends and family are just as important as the stress directly associated with travel.
She emphasizes the need to "draw a line around the job," even on the road, and recommends at least two hours of downtime away from work. "I would say that's a minimum," she says. "Take a shower. Change your clothes. Go jogging. Do something that transitions you from your professional role to your personal role."
Avoid spending every evening with coworkers, even if you're in the same hotel, and schedule after-hours meetings around activities instead of more food and drink. Also "recognize that if you were at home, you wouldn't be spending every evening together," says Franklin, nor would you call your co-worker at 9:15 at night to go over a work project.
Some people find that the coldness of a hotel space can be made more intimate with items from home. Tom B., a New Hampshire management consultant, carries small photos of his family with him, which he displays on the nightstand in whatever hotel he happens to land. He also packs his favorite robe and coffee mug. "It makes the room a bit more intimate," he says, "I'd rather look up and see my wife and kids than just another advertisement card for hotel room service."
Ways to Reach Out
Travelers also need to stay in touch with those at home, says Franklin. "Especially if you have a family and have children, establishing rituals [to connect] is important." She tells the story of one frequent traveler who has an inviolable "date" each night with her son. "Eight p.m. is story time, regardless of where she is in the world," says Franklin. "If she has to set an alarm and get up in the middle of the night…her son knows it's story time."
The technology that keeps you in touch with your office from the road can also keep you in contact with your family. Franklin suggests using e-mail to help your children with their homework.
Though it's tempting to use your time away to focus on work and limit home life to a five-minute phone call, doing so may actually harm your performance. Staying in touch with your family and friends may seem like just one more thing in an already overcrowded schedule, but those connections are the very things that help you cope with business stress.
In the end, you have to evaluate your priorities. "You always have to come back to the same issue," Franklin says. "What are your goals, personally and professionally?" You'll likely determine that you work to live, not the other way around.
American Psychological Association
Mental Health America
Canadian Psychiatric Association
Canadian Psychological Association
Naturopathica Spa website. Available at: http://www.naturopathica.com.
Last reviewed February 2008 by Ryan Estévez, MD, PhD, MPH
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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