The behavioural and psychological effects of international business travel

5 min read

The International SOS Foundation has teamed up with Kingston University and Affinity Health at Work, to reveal insights into the habits, health and psychological implications of international business travel (IBT) on the traveller.

As employee mental health and its impact on business outcomes is increasingly scrutinised, this research uncovers the rise in risky behaviours, burn out, and exhaustion of the IBT. This is alongside their experience of a sense of adventure, freedom and heightened engagement.

The whitepaper ‘Keeping International Business Travellers Happy, Healthy & Engaged at Home and Away’ also starts to uncover the organisational, social and individual factors that support and hinder the psychological health of IBTs.

Kai Boschmann, Director, International SOS Foundation, who commissioned the study, comments, “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.”

Dr Rachel Lewis CPsychol, Associate Professor in Occupational Psychology, Kingston Business School and Director, Affinity Health at Work, added, “A large proportion of the international business travellers we interviewed reported suffering from stress and anxiety while away. By starting to look into the causes of this, and exploring how it can be exacerbated by things such as organisational culture, the paper provides valuable insights and practical support for employers and employees. Awareness is the first step in tackling these issues that are, inevitably, going to become more prevalent as the global workforce increasingly travels internationally in search of business opportunity and success.”

Risky Behaviours Uncovered

While 67% of respondents to the study reported increased engagement in their jobs due to business travel, over a third (34%) of international business travellers (IBTs) are more likely to engage in a number of risky behaviours when travelling, compared to their behaviour at home, and only 15% are more concerned about their safety while they’re away. This trend is particularly evident among the younger, less experienced employees. The study shows that this may be the result of lowered inhibitions; the majority (75%) agree that they see business travel as an opportunity for adventure and exploration, and, for 59%, it’s an opportunity to enjoy freedom from home life.

• 46% admit to consuming more alcohol when away on business
• 35% are more likely to visit bars and nightclubs
• 35% more likely to eat in unhygienic places
• 33% will travel to areas they don’t know are safe
• 32% are more likely to travel in vehicles without adequate protection
• Nearly one in ten travellers (9%) also reported that they would be more likely to start a sexual relationship with a new sexual partner(s)
• 2% are more likely to have unprotected sex and 2% are more likely to use drugs than they are at home

Professor Robert Quigley MD, Senior Vice President and Regional Medical Director at International SOS commented: “It is clear that organisations must bridge a risk awareness gap by educating travelling staff about the potential health and safety risks they face when away from home, before it has an impact. This can play a critical role in helping international business travellers be better protected themselves and keep business aims on track.”

Mental & Physical Health

The report also uncovers the impact on mental health and physical wellbeing, including an increase in stress levels and emotional exhaustion.1% their mood suffers when on business
• 45% experience an increase in stress levels while on a business trip
• 41% of respondents report that their mood suffers when on business trips
• Nearly 1/3 (31%) experience emotional exhaustion, a core feature of burnout, on a weekly basis (particularly prevalent in IBTs with children voiced higher levels of emotional exhaustion)
• 1/4 of respondents report their mental health issues are more prevalent (including heightened depression, 27%, stress, 24% and anxiety, 23%)

Mental health issues are consolidated with physical health demands and issues, including working more hours (78%), are less likely to have a balanced diet (76%), less likely to exercise (76%), and suffer from reduced quality sleep (73%).

Dr Rachel Lewis continued, “The combination of the physical demands and restrictions of international business travel can have a major impact on employees’ physical and psychological health. The disruption of being away from home can affect eating patterns as well as opportunities to keep up a regular exercise routine. Many people rely on this kind of activity to keep a healthy balance both physically and mentally, whether they are at home or away. This may be why only 40% of international business travellers reported a sufficient work/life balance.”

Organisational support

While many organisations are providing for the logistics of business travel adequately when it comes to health and wellbeing, it’s a different matter:

• 77% provide or enable booking /arrangement of travel logistics
• 72% choose quality hotel accommodation
• 65% allow bleisure time
• 59% provide business class flights on long haul
• 34% Employee Assistance Plan
• 25% wellness programme
• 21% mental health support

Professor Robert Quigley MD, commented “Organisations can be doing a lot more to support and protect their business travellers. The logistics of business travel are a well-trodden path, but the mental wellbeing of employees who travel regularly is being overlooked, and could be having a major impact on both personnel and the health of a business. Appropriate support and advice, encompassing behavioural, physical and psychological health, can be the difference between a successful business trip and a costly failed one.”

Accompanying the white paper are materials to support organisations, managers and international business travellers including:

• Planning and Coping Tool
• Action Planning Tool
• Guidance for Organisations
• Guidance for Managers
• Guidance for IBTs
• Checklist for Organisations
• Checklist for Managers
• Checklist for IBTs

The new study ‘Keeping International Business Travellers Happy, Healthy & Engaged at Home and Away’ and supporting materials, can be accessed here, and will be presented in a free webinar at 4pm GMT on Thursday 8 November 2018. To register for the webinar, click here.