Is Frequent Travel Actually Bad For You?

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Buckle up, because this is going to be a bit of a long one. Make yourself a cup of tea, put on your comfy pants, and get ready. (Ok, it’s not actually that long, just a little longer than the typical posts I write on here. And that’s because I HAVE THINGS TO SAY).

The Economist came out with an article last week that has been troubling me since I first read it whilst avoiding my Monday morning work inbox. The article, entitled “The Sad Sick Life of the Business Traveller“, draws on the findings of a recent study published by researchers at the University of Surrey in England, and the Lund University, in Sweden. The fifteen page journal article, can be found here, if you have access to academic articles, but the Economist does a good job of explaining the gist of it in a couple hundred words: the glamorization of travel and the jet set lifestyle masks the true costs of this “hypermobility”, namely negative social, emotional, psychological, and physical consequences. 

The argument that we glamorize frequent long-haul travel, in my opinion, holds absolutely true. Heck, I write an entire blog about my travel aspirations. My Instagram feeds both on the blog and on my personal account are filled with what can only be described as travel porn, and I spend a good portion of my free time wistfully pouring over travel sites and travel blogs, and wondering how an acquaintance who is only a year older than me managed to find a job that let her travel to Dubai, Hong Kong, Morocco AND Paris in the span of three months (all perfectly curated on Instagram of course). HOW?! I spend half my time daydreaming of travel and waiting for the day when I’m senior enough in my team to be allowed to go on business travel trips domestically, no less overseas. This year my more senior team members have been to Geneva, Paris, Brazil, London (twice), Spain, and a handful of domestic trips, and I want that to be me. For a travel obsessed twenty-something at the bottom of the professional food chain, being allowed to go on overseas business trips will be a major career milestone.

The article in The Economist and the study argues that I am not alone in this desire. In fact, you, me, and society at large, have been conditioned to think this way, and to affix prestige and social capital to frequent travel, to the extent that we lose sight of the full picture that it entails. Frequent travel, apparently, is not all that glamorous, and in fact, is dangerous? The study links frequent travel to chronic health problems such as deep-vein thrombosis, radiation exposure, increased risk of heart attack and stroke, as some of the more serious ones, and sleep deprivation, poor diet, and lack of exercise as some of the more mild (although still very problematic in the long-term) side effects. Stress, social isolation, and relationship fatigue are some of the emotional and social repercussions they highlight. Basically, frequent travel may slowly kill you at worst, and at best, it is creating a net negative effect on your social and physical well-being.

Keep in mind, that this refers to very frequent travel, not the hopping on a flight every few months kind of travel. But still, whether it be through the business trips we wish we got an invite for, or the digital nomad blogs we drool over, frequent, country-hopping travel, is a life many of wish we had. A decent-sized portion of me certainly wishes I do. As I start to consider my career next move and how long I should stay with my current employer, job postings in my field that require 30-50% travel always get bumped up to the top of the interest list. I never understood the use of the word “required” when job adverts referred to the amount of travel time the role entailed. Required, sounded almost apologetic, as if travelling that much was considered to be a burden. After reading the Economist article, I guess I kind of get where they are coming from, although seeing “30% international travel required”  still gives me a giant thrill.

This is not to say that I’ve never been on a business trip before and am building it up in my head as a glamorous free vacation on the company’s dime. I have done a small amount of business travel for previous employers. In college my employer flew me to DC to work a youth leaders retreat they held annually, I was sent to a conference in San Francisco while I was working in London, and most recently, I attended an academic conference in Brussels. The Brussels conference was my own academic research, I financed it myself, and had the pleasure of staying with a good friend, but I was unmistakably there to work, and not to visit/sight see. The conference ran 9am-5pm, and the evenings were filled with semi-obligatory networking dinners.

San Francisco was a rush, because I got to stay all alone in my own 5-star hotel room, and that in and of itself was a first for this budget traveller. The city itself, I didn’t see very much of. And after nearly a year of enduring the predominantly gloomy and grey British weather, I didn’t get to take advantage of the California sun, because I was in a dark windowless conference room the entire day, every day. On the plus side, I did manage to finagle a free trip home to the East coast to visit my family, by buying the domestic in-between flight. DC was similar, my first visit to the Capitol, and I didn’t see any of it. Brussels was a little better, but only because I had been there several times already and knew my way around the city well.

I get it, there are definitely some negative side effects of frequent travel if you don’t make a conscious effort to take care of yourself. Eating every meal out will make you fat and raise your cholesterol, jet lag messes with your sleep, plane cabin air makes you dehydrated, especially if you use it as an opportunity to max out on the free booze, and will give you poor circulation, if you don’t make an effort to get up and walk around a couple times during a long-haul flight. Jet lag is sometimes unavoidable, and being away from your family and friends when you want to be at home sucks. Travel absolutely can take its toll even if you do try your very best to be mindful of your health, and if you travel on a regular basis, the toll exponentially increases, I’m not questioning that. But I think that a lot of frequent travellers probably don’t always make a full effort to prevent the negative effects that are under their control (i.e. avoiding alcohol, not making every meal decadent, utilizing the hotel gym).

Despite my less than amazing business travel experiences and the doom and gloom conclusions of the Cohen and Gossling study, I still don’t think I’ve been put off my aspirational vision of being a business traveller. Getting paid to explore the world, even if semi-inhibited by business duties while I’m doing it, still seems incredible. Maybe I, a 25 year old, newly-minted young professional, with three business travel experiences under my belt, who painstakingly counts and saves my dollars to be able to afford to travel on my own time, am too naive. Maybe wanderlust dies when you travel too much. Maybe travelling for work takes the joy out of travel, making it a mundane, exhausting, and tortuous chore. Maybe in 10 years time I’ll be bitter, jaded, business traveller, and eat my words. But I hope that’s not the case. Until I’m proven wrong by my own experience, I’m going to keep wishing, daydreaming, and planning (and applying to jobs with 30%+ required travel time, hehe).

What do you think?

Happy wandering!

-xo

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