Workplace Culture

Taking Flight (Oh, My Aching Back)

By Rick Bell

Dec. 18, 2015

I spent a lot of time traveling this fall — at least by my normally homebound standards. Trips to Orlando, Las Vegas, Boston, Portland, Oregon, and San Diego added up to a lot of time spent in airports, hotels, shuttles, cars and conference ballrooms over a six-week stretch. 
 
I’m not sure yet what 2016 holds in store, but I’ve gained a newfound respect for extreme travelers who rack up hundreds of thousands of miles annually on their globe-hopping work commutes. 
 
That said, I don’t think I could do it.
 
After my recent rash of time on the road, I realize that travel has its travails, too. Commuting takes a toll, both physically and mentally. 
 
Blame it on a lack of willpower, poor discipline or just plain laziness, but I do not eat well when I travel. Let me rephrase that: I eat too well when I travel, which unfortunately translates into a terminally bad diet of airport terminal fast food, salt-laden hotel meals and too-tempting conference buffet lines … not to mention endless bags of Cheese
Nips on the plane. 
 
I also leave my exercise regimen at home — unfortunately next to my sunglasses and dress shoes.
 
A friend who travels for work way more than I do empathized with me as we walked our dogs one morning. “I know what you mean,” she told me as we watched our two canine senior citizens act like pups in the park. “I don’t eat well either when I travel, and it’s hard to fit in exercise. You’re up early, out late and eat food you don’t normally eat.”
 
While I don’t take great solace in this, there is a measure of comfort knowing that my friend and I aren’t alone when facing up to the fact that health and business travel often do not mix.
 
A study out of the U.K. recently revealed that there’s an entire army of sickly and sad business travelers populating the world’s airports, hotels, restaurants and bars. “A Darker Side of Hypermobility” studied the traveling workforce’s struggles on the road. From the physical toll to psychological, emotional and even social consequences, the results offer a stark realization that there’s little glamour in jetting around for work.
 
One of the authors notes, “If you fly just 85,000 miles a year, which is the equivalent of flying from New York to Tokyo seven times a year, you’ve already exceeded the safe limit for radiation exposure.”
 
Then there’s your body clock: “There’s a disruption to the circadian rhythm you get through jet lag. And that has chronic effects when it builds over time,” the author adds.
Signs of rapid aging, mental fatigue, depression from such a solitary lifestyle and even memory loss are also attributed to frequent air travel. They even coined a name: “ ‘creeping tiredness,’ repeated jet lag and accumulation of travel stress may turn chronic, and has been described as ‘frequent traveler exhaustion,’ ” they wrote.
 
Such maladies aside, being cooped up 37,000 feet above ground in a poorly ventilated giant metal container for several hours alongside 250-plus strangers with all manner of illnesses is not good for one’s health, either. 
 
I’m not pushing to become a nation of worker hermits confined to cube farms. But if employers aren’t already aware of the potential road hazards that lie ahead for their travel-weary workers, this study should act as a security checkpoint. Remove your shoes, pull out your laptop and let’s scan what can be done to ensure employees remain as healthy on the road as they hopefully are at home.
 
As someone who suffered from a notoriously bad back while commuting 160-plus miles daily round trip, I finally found relief when my employer agreed to let me work from home a couple of days a week. Telecommuting is a simple, cheap and effective option for those on the road. 
 
Also, consult with your wellness program coordinator regarding long-distance travelers. If the provider doesn’t have a health regimen in place (I’d be surprised if they didn’t), ask them to create one for you. 
 
And while traveling employees may not be directly in your EAP’s wheelhouse, your staff should know they have access to it whether they’re in the cozy confines of the office or on the clock thousands of miles away. 
 
Perhaps your road warriors possess an amazing amount of personal discipline. If so, revel in your happy, healthy and productive remote workforce.
 
But don’t overlook the signs of frequent traveler exhaustion. And be on the watch for the employee who suddenly seems to be gaining weight. Chances are they're hitting the buffet line a bit too hard.
 
Or developing an addiction to Cheese Nips.
Rick Bell is Workforce’s editorial director. For comments or questions email editors@workforce.com.

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