Few would dispute the business, career and personal opportunities associated with travelling internationally for work purposes, but psychologists warn that business travel is all too often an overlooked risk factor in work-related stress. Vicky Powell looks at some of the simple strategies managers can use to protect employees’ mental health and wellbeing from the negative effects of international business travel.

Increase in business travel

In our globalised economy, the frequency of international business trips shows no sign of abating. Despite the popularity of technology such as Skype and conference/video calling enabling better global communication, the volume of international business travel has not reduced. Rather, most international business travellers reported in a recent economic survey that they continue to travel as much or to an even greater extent than three years ago.

Statistics from the Office for National Statistics indicate that in 2016 there were 9.2 million business trips to the UK alone and around 25% of all entries into the UK were classed as business visits.

Of course, international business travel is not only good for global business — it can also offer great opportunities for staff, both personally and in terms of career progression.

However, when it comes to the downside of business travel, managers have in the past tended to focus on the associated physical health risks, such as infectious diseases, or, alternatively, safety issues linked to risks of terrorism, civil unrest and natural disasters in foreign countries.

So now, at a time when most managers are trying to better manage and support good mental health in the workplace, it is essential to recognise the risks that business travel can raise in terms of work-related stress and worker wellbeing.

Why business travel can harm mental health

Recently a new White Paper, entitled Keeping Business Travellers Happy, Healthy & Engaged, at Home and Away was published by Kingston University, Affinity Health at Work and the International SOS Foundation, focusing on the strain international business travel can put on staff and how this can better be managed.

According to the research which was conducted for the White Paper, while 67% of international business travellers surveyed reported being more engaged with their jobs due to travel, 34% of staff were more likely to do things such as consume excessive alcohol, travel in a vehicle without adequate protection, start a sexual relationship with a new partner, have unprotected sex or use drugs when travelling internationally for work.

In the context of this background of increased risk-taking, the report also uncovered the significant impact business travel could have on mental health.

Around 45% of those interviewed reported increased stress during international trips. In addition, 31% said they experienced emotional exhaustion on a weekly basis, recognised as a core feature of burnout. A quarter of interviewees said it exacerbated existing mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression.

One of the authors of the report, occupational psychology expert Dr Rachel Lewis, says that organisational culture can have a big impact on stress and anxiety levels around business travel.

Dr Lewis said, "We found organisations where there was lots of international business travel were characterised by a macho culture in which business travellers were talked about as 'superheroes' able to fly across time zones and still come in to the office at 5am."

She added, "We heard people saying things like 'I don't even need to go home, I just shower at the airport and come straight to the office.' Within that context, the ability to speak up if there is an issue such as stress, anxiety or burnout is completely minimised."

How employers can help

Kai Boschmann, Director of the International SOS Foundation, which works with businesses to improve the safety, security, health and welfare of people working abroad, said it was vital to examine the health and psychological implications of such travel on employees.

She said, "The business opportunities associated with international travel are undisputed, but research suggests that frequent travellers make three times as many claims for psychological treatment compared to those who don't travel on business regularly. To foster business productivity and fulfil duty of care in a sustained way, organisations need to also understand how they can protect the mental health and physical wellbeing of their employees while travelling."

Similarly, Dr Lewis has called on both employees and employers to take steps to guard against the negative impacts of international business travel.

As ever in managing work-related health risks, the risk assessment is central and here, the HSE’s framework for work-related stress risk assessments, as well the HSE Management Standards on stress and sample risk assessments for stress, may be helpful.

On this topic, Dr Lewis says, "There are simple things organisations can do such as carrying out risk assessments with their international business travellers before they leave, providing continuity of care to give them support while they are away and developing an organisational culture where it's okay to talk about mental health. They can also put policies in place relating to behavioural expectations while employees are abroad”.

Allowing employees to take the time before they leave on business trips to put arrangements in place to deal with potential emergencies at home can also be very helpful in reducing stress and anxiety, according to Dr Lewis.

Employees also often experience pressure to complete the work of their usual workload in addition to that originating from the trip. Here, managers can help by carefully monitoring the travelling employee’s workload and making sure it is shared where necessary.

What business travellers can do to help themselves

In a paper accompanying the Kingston University business travel report, occupational health experts offered the following tips to help employees maintain their mental health while travelling for business.

  • Be aware of your mental health — take time to reflect on what causes your mood to decline and find ways to address it.

  • Take a balanced perspective — consider the positive aspects and benefits of international business travel, as well as the more challenging issues.

  • Set boundaries between work and non-work time (this includes the use of technology such as work email, work mobile phone, etc).

  • Maintain as many “home” routines and habits when away as possible.

  • Make space for down-time, rest and recuperation.

  • Actively take breaks throughout the working day.

  • Adopt healthy sleeping habits (eg wind down an hour before bedtime).

  • Eat a well-balanced diet and minimise alcohol consumption.

  • Take exercise (eg gym, running, yoga, etc).

  • Schedule in time to connect with family, friends and colleagues.

  • Communicate effectively with your travelling colleagues.

Many of the above may seem like minor points but collectively they can add up. A small change to adopt healthy sleeping habits, such as packing a favourite pillow, can add to a proper night’s sleep. Similarly, trying to keep to some parts of usual routines and work/life boundaries, such as chatting to family after the end of the work day via Skype and setting an out-of-hours’ notice for the benefit of colleagues, even in the face of technology which enables 24/7 online connectivity with everyone, may, depending on the individual, lift some of the pressures.

No matter what strategies are used, it is important to fully recognise how the longer hours of business travel and potentially higher levels of stress than normal can negatively affect mental health, but with careful planning, assessment and management of the mental health risks involved, business travel can remain a positive, business and career enhancing opportunity for employees and their organisations alike.

Last reviewed 16 July 2019