What are the effects of frequent business travel?

New research has revealed that the luxury lifestyle enjoyed by those lucky ones who get to travel for work might not be all that luxurious after all.

According to Scott Cohen, deputy director of research of the School of Hospitality and Tourism Management at the University of Surrey, there’s no reason to be jealous of these people. Their Instagram feeds might induce some serious jealousy, but Cohen’s recent paper A Darker Side of Hypermobility reveals that the impact of frequent travel is nothing short of disturbing.

"[Business travel] has a wide range of physiological, psychological and emotional, and social consequences that are often overlooked, because being a ‘road warrior’ tends to get glamorized through marketing and social media," says Cohen.

So what are the effects of frequent business travel?

Faster ageing

Scientists know that specific genes can affect how quickly we age – and it appears that the more someone travels, the faster they age.

"Frequent flying can lead to chronic jet lag, which can cause memory impairment and has been linked in studies to disrupting gene expression that influences aging and the immune system, and increased risk of heart attack or stroke," says Cohen.

Exposure to high levels of radiation

Due to the fact that radiation exposure is hundreds of times higher at high altitude than at ground level, frequent fliers are exposed to more radiation than is considered healthy. In fact, just seven round trips from New York to Tokyo a year exceeds the limit for public exposure to radiation, according to Cohen. "There have been calls to classify frequent business travelers as ‘radiation workers,'" he says.

Weaker immune system

On a long-haul transatlantic flight, everyone is breathing the same recirculated air. This means that travellers are exposed to germs more often – and the jet lag and general tiredness related to frequent travel  "can even switch off genes that are linked to the immune system," Cohen notes in his paper. This results in frequent travellers being less well equipped to fight off disease than those who travel on a less frequent basis.

Higher risk for obesity

This is perhaps an unsurprising point, but those who travel a lot generally don’t get the chance to eat much fresh and healthy food. Cohen says that the poor diet combined with a general increase in alcohol, and the lack of exercise opportunities while travelling means that frequent fliers tend to be in a worse shape and have a higher risk of obesity.

Increased risk of mental health issues

A number of things related to travel can cause a higher risk of mental health issues for frequent business travellers.

"The disruption of the circadian rhythm from jet lag affects mood, judgment, and concentration for up to six days," says Cohen. 

He found that the cumulative stress of preparing for a trip, combined with the jet lag from those trips can lead to ‘travel disorientation’.

There’s also the fact that business travel tends to be a lone sport, with a lot of time spent away from family and friends – Cohen found that this can lead business travellers to feel guilty and their spouses often feel resentment and anger. When you combine the stress with the isolation and guilt, it can lead to serious mental health issues, notes Cohen. "One study found that employees of the World Bank who travel frequently for work have a threefold increase in psychological claims on medical insurance as opposed to non-travellers."

How can you combat these negative effects?

It’s worth noting that if you take only a short business trip once or twice every few months, you’re likely to be less exposed to the risks, according to Catherine Richards, a staff scientist at the Hutchinson Institute for Cancer Outcomes Research and adjunct assistant professor at the Department of Epidemiology of Columbia University who has studied the health risks linked to business travel.

One of the key things Richards recommends for frequent travellers is to focus on maintaining their health while away, recommending that companies look into employee education programmes on stress management and strategies to improve diet and activity while travelling. She thinks that they should offer reimbursement rates for food on the road based on the quality of the food consumed. "Either reimburse high–energy-density food meals at a below-cost rate, or reimburse healthy meals at an above-cost rate," she says. She adds that companies could book rooms only with hotel chains that have gyms, and provide financial incentives to employees to exercise while traveling.

In terms of things that frequent travellers can do, Richards says it’s important to stand or walk as much as possible at the airport, avoiding escalators or lifts, and going for a short walk while waiting for the flight to take off instead of sitting in a chair. And if the hotel doesn’t have a gym, she recommends working out in the room, or running outside. Finally, she says, "Pack healthy snacks. If you leave your food choices to what you find on the road, you may be stuck with limited to no health options."

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