The psychology of international business travel

Woman at airport
Looking after the mental wellbeing of travelling employees

Dr Robert Quigley, Senior Vice-President and Regional Medical Director, Americas Region for International SOS Assistance, Inc. and MedAire, explores what businesses can do to ensure peace of mind for their travelling employees

Going on a business trip can be an exciting part of work and brings with it a host of opportunities for both employees and businesses. It enables the former to experience a foreign country and what it has to offer, and occasionally even turn their work travel into a mini ‘bleisure’ trip. For businesses, this can lead to more engaged, productive employees, as well as more business opportunities. 

But there can also be a downside to international business travel (IBT). Frequent travellers make three times as many claims for psychological treatment than those who don’t go on regular business trips. 
To not only fulfil their duty of care, but also foster a happy and productive mobile workforce, organisations need to understand how they can not only protect the physical health, but also the mental wellbeing, of their travelling employees – which may not be mutually exclusive.

IBT impact on mental health
As exciting as it is to be in a new country and experience a different culture, IBT can have a major impact on employees’ physical and psychological health. This is not surprising when you consider that being away from home can disrupt normal routines, such as healthy eating patterns, sleep and regular exercise. This is highlighted in recent International SOS research which found that only 40 per cent of international business travellers reported having a good work/life balance while abroad. So, it’s perhaps not surprising that our research found that one-quarter of business travellers experienced mental health issues that were more prevalent than a non-mobile population. 

Emotional exhaustion is also a common heath issues experienced by IBTs, with 31 per cent affected by it. This is of course a core feature of burnout and can cause more serious health issues down the road that can spill over into every area of life. Burnout from prolonged stress can also cause long-term changes to your body that make you vulnerable to illnesses like colds and flu. This stress seems to affect women more. Female respondents showed, on average, significantly higher levels of emotional exhaustion than males. 

Supporting employees
While many organisations are taking care of the logistics of business travel, such as booking hotels and transport, more needs to be done to ensure IBTs are given the right tools to help them. 

Our research found that there is a lack of provision in terms of mental health support for mobile workers. Only 21 per cent of business travellers surveyed said they were offered mental health support, and just 25 per cent had access to wellness programmes. This lack of support is not just detrimental to employees and their wellbeing, but can also hurt the businesses’ bottom line. Employees that are overly stressed, anxious, or experiencing either physical or mental illnesses, can become disinterested (presenteeism), and of course might need to take time off work in order to recover (absenteeism). The best way to help combat these health issues is to put preventative measures in place sooner rather than later. 

Luckily, there are things organisations can do to help ensure their employees are properly supported from a mental perspective. These include creating clear policies, behavioural expectations and best practices around travel that encompass individual differences, but also monitoring the mental health of their IBT population. 

One of the ways to do this is to implement mental health monitoring included in pre- and post-travel health checks, along with any physical checks. It should go without saying, but creating an organisational culture of openness around mental health is key. The aim here should be to reduce the stigma around mental health and create a culture where employees feel that the organisation cares about their wellbeing. Ultimately, it’s about creating an environment where they feel safe to disclose existing conditions and talk to colleagues and managers if they are suffering from or at risk of mental health issues.

Businesses can also ensure that any feedback survey post-trip includes questions on mental health. It is good to understand the effects a certain trip had on someone – and to understand what measures can be put in place to help minimise any negative issues experienced by the IBT. 

A small change that can help IBTs while they are on a trip is to build in flexible work schedules so that they can recover while away (and of course, when they return). Making sure they ‘switch off’ while on a business trip – which may include booking bleisure time – can make all the difference. When they’ve returned from a trip, giving IBTs an extended weekend, a work from home day, or flexi-time can also give them the rest they need. 

Happy employee = happy employer
Within the context of increasing IBT, organisations need to understand the potentially negative implications business travel can have on their workforce. This will better help them offer guidance and support to employees, and ensure they are happy and engaged no matter where in the world their job takes them. 

At the end of the day, helping IBTs needs to be about much more than just booking their tickets and hotel rooms. Actively supporting their overall health – both mental and physical – and ensuring they have the assistance they need is key to not just meeting an organisation’s duty of care, but driving performance.