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 checkin, 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 travellers 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 travellers who experience work-related stress. According to the Health and Safety Executive (a UK government agency), work-related stress, depression or anxiety accounts for 44 per cent of work-related ill health and 57 per cent of all working days lost to ill health. But according to the Kingston research, frequent travel adds an additional element of pressure – 45 per cent of the 200 frequent travellers surveyed reported higher stress levels than normal while on work trips. And 31 per cent said they experienced emotional exhaustion, a major risk factor of burnout, on a weekly basis.
STAGES OF BURNOUT
Burnout is defined as a “syndrome of emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation 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 depersonalisation, 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 per cent of those who have experienced mental health problems have not told their employer.
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