Burned Out
Business Traveler|October 2019
Burned Out
Constant long-haul travel can have a serious impact on your mental well-being – but there are ways to minimize your stress levels.
Sally Brown

Modern international travel can feel like a series of hurdles to negotiate, whether it’s the late arrival of your airport taxi, unexpected traffic jams and flight delays, or just the sequential set of queues, from check-in, bag drop, security, lounge access and boarding to baggage collection and passport control. In between periods of stress, there are periods of boredom, often combined with opportunities to over-drink or eat.

Throw in jet lag, disrupted sleep, feelings of loneliness, disconnect from colleagues and guilt at leaving loved ones, and it’s no surprise that a quarter of frequent travelers have experienced mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, according to a survey by the International SOS Foundation and Kingston University.

Of course, it’s not only frequent travelers who experience work-related stress. According to the UK’s Health and Safety Executive, work-related stress, depression or anxiety accounts for 44 percent of work-related ill health and 57 percent of all working days lost to ill health. But the Kingston research reveals frequent travel presents an additional element of pressure – 45 percent of the 200 frequent travelers surveyed reported higher stress levels than normal while on work trips. And 31 percent said they experienced emotional exhaustion – one of the major risk factors of burnout – on a weekly basis.

STAGES OF BURNOUT

Burnout is defined as a “syndrome of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and reduced personal accomplishment,” according to Professor Christina Maslach, the psychologist who first identified the syndrome in the 1970s.

“Burnout is an accumulative process,” says Dr. Rachel Lewis, associate professor of occupational and business psychology at Kingston University, who carried out the research for International SOS. “It starts with a reduction in factors that support our ability to cope, such as eating a balanced diet, getting quality sleep and regular exercise. If this combines with increased external demand, the result is stress. If stress is ongoing, it can lead to the first stage of burnout, which is emotional exhaustion. If this is left unchecked, stage two is depersonalization, becoming cynical and critical of both yourself and others. Stage three is reduced personal accomplishment, the feeling that you are incompetent or that you are not achieving. If that continues, you have reached burnout.”

In the initial stages, many people take a “push through it” approach. “A classic response to feelings of stress is to work harder, which just exacerbates the symptoms,” says Matthew Holman, founder of Simpila Healthy Solutions, a consultancy that addresses mental health issues in the workplace. “There is still a stigma to admitting you are struggling, and a fear that it will bring your performance and ability into question.”

According to Simpila’s Business Travel and Mental Health Survey, 80 percent of those who have experienced mental health problems have not told their employer.

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October 2019