We all have them. Heck, maybe you are one of them. Those Facebook friends who get to travel all over the country or the world for their jobs. Instead of being stuck in the same office day after day, frequent business travelers are taking three or four business trips a month. While you’re annoyed by Kim from accounting's smelly lunch, your frequent business traveler friends are checking in at LAX, PEK, DXB, and LHR. They’re posting Instagram snaps of the view of the cherry blossoms from their hotel room in Tokyo or of that excellent escargot from that little cafe along the Champs-Élysées, all on their company’s dime. They really are living the life, it seems—or are they?
According to Scott Cohen, deputy director of research of the School of Hospitality and Tourism Management at the University of Surrey, it’s time to send your envy packing. Cohen recently published a paper titled A Darker Side of Hypermobility, in which he aggregated the data from 15 years of major studies on frequent travel. His findings are nothing short of disturbing if you’re one of what Cohen calls the "hypermobile": "a mobile elite who are often well connected to global networks, with their lifestyles closely but not exclusively linked to the practice of business travel."
In Cohen’s review of the literature, he found that this mobile elite, instead of bragging about their exciting lifestyles, should be very concerned about their health. "[Business travel] has a wide range of physiological, psychological and emotional, and social consequences that are often overlooked, because being a ‘road warrior’ tends to get glamorized through marketing and social media," says Cohen. He argues that this glamorization of hypermobility—used to sell flights, frequent-flyer memberships, and hotel rooms—has silenced the negative health effects frequent business travelers expose themselves to. Specifically:
"Frequent flying can lead to chronic jet lag, which can cause memory impairment and has been linked in studies to disrupting gene expression that influences aging and the immune system, and increased risk of heart attack or stroke," says Cohen.
If aging faster isn’t scary enough, it turns out that frequent business travelers are exposed to more radiation than is considered healthy. "Radiation exposure is hundreds of times higher at high altitude than at ground," says Cohen.
Matter of fact, it’s so high that "there have been calls to classify frequent business travelers as ‘radiation workers,'" he says, and notes that just seven round-trip flights a year from New York to Tokyo (about 85,000 miles) exceeds the limit for public exposure to radiation. As Cohen notes in his paper, "radiation exposure amongst commercial aircrew even exceeds that of nuclear power workers."
No matter if you’re in economy or first class, everyone on a long-haul transatlantic flight is breathing the same recirculated air. Not only does this expose frequent business travelers to germs more often, the jet lag and general tiredness from running to and from airports "can even switch off genes that are linked to the immune system," Cohen notes in his paper. This means frequent travelers are not as well equipped to fight off disease as people who travel less frequently.
Unsurprisingly, those who travel a lot generally don’t have the chance to eat meals prepared with fresh, healthy foods. Airline foods are packed with salt and sugar so they can retain their taste at higher altitudes during long journeys. But that salt and sugar will wreak havoc on your body over the long term. Cohen says the poor diet, combined with a general increase in alcohol and the lack of exercise opportunities while traveling, means frequent travelers have higher risk of obesity.
"The disruption of the circadian rhythm from jet lag affects mood, judgment, and concentration for up to six days," says Cohen. In his review of the literature, he found that the cumulative effect of the stress from preparing for a trip and the jet lag from those trips can lead to "travel disorientation."
"There is the stress of preparing for a trip, the fact that the time spent traveling is rarely offset through a reduced workload, and the anxieties of ‘inbox overload,'" says Cohen. "Stress is compounded through weather delays, technical failures, increased security checks, and rising anxieties over terrorism and safety."
Frequent business travelers often also feel lonely and isolated—as well as guilty for leaving family members behind. Their spouses, in turn, often feel resentment and anger. When you combine the stress with the isolation and guilt, it can lead to serious mental health issues, notes Cohen. "One study found that employees of the World Bank who travel frequently for work have a threefold increase in psychological claims on medical insurance as opposed to nontravelers."
Before you cut up your frequent-flyer card, it’s important to note that if you take only a short business trip once or twice every few months, you’re likely to be less exposed to the risks mentioned above, says Catherine Richards, a staff scientist at the Hutchinson Institute for Cancer Outcomes Research and adjunct assistant professor at the Department of Epidemiology of Columbia University who has studied the health risks linked to business travel.
"In our study, our most robust findings were for heavy business travel—14 days or more of travel a month," says Richards. "We found that heavy travel was bad for self-reported health, obesity, and BMI. When I say robust, I mean that there was a significant increasing trend for these health outcomes with increasing nights spent away from home."
While that’s good news for people who travel fewer than two weeks a month, many employees don’t have that option in the increasingly globalized business world. It’s either you travel for your job or you look for a new one. But if you have no choice, Richards says there are some things both you and your employer can do to reduce the negative effects of frequent business travel.
Richards says that companies should look into employee education programs on stress management and strategies to improve diet and activity while traveling. She also says companies could offer reimbursement rates for food on the road based on the quality of the food consumed. "Either reimburse high–energy-density food meals at a below-cost rate, or reimburse healthy meals at an above-cost rate," she says. She adds that companies could book rooms only with hotel chains that have gyms, and provide financial incentives to employees to exercise while traveling.
As for proactive steps the employee can take, Richards says the frequent business traveler should stand or walk as much as possible in the airport, avoid moving walkways and escalators, and go for a quick walk while waiting for the flight to take off instead of sitting in a chair. If your hotel doesn’t have a gym, Richards says you can also always do pushups, sit-ups, squats, and other types of workouts within the comfort of your hotel room—and be sure to pack a pair of workout clothes and go for a run or walk outside if the hotel doesn’t have a gym. Finally, she says, "Pack healthy snacks. If you leave your food choices to what you find on the road, you may be stuck with limited to no health options."
As for Cohen, he suggests frequent business travelers explore alternative modes of transportation—such as taking the train instead of flying. "If you must fly, try to fly direct instead of taking connecting flights that will contribute more to exhaustion," he says, adding, "feel out whether there might be an opportunity to substitute a face-to-face visit with teleconferencing—often it is necessary to meet someone for the first time in person, but after that, teleconferencing can often get the job done."