Why work travel isn’t the perk it was once thought to be

Leena van Raay remembers a time when her partner was dropping her at Melbourne Airport, ahead of a work trip. She turned to him and said she just didn’t want to get on the plane.

“He said, ‘Well you’ve got a job to do – you’ve got to go’,” she told TND.

It was the early days of Bike n’ Blend – the pedal-powered smoothie pop-up van company that Raay founded 13 years ago – and she had to do everything herself. As Bike n’ Blend began to take off, that meant more travel interstate, which left Raay feeling completely burnt out.

She’s not alone. A survey commissioned by travel risk management company World Travel Protection has found that many people whose careers involve frequent journeys are left feeling homesick, lonely, exhausted and anxious.

Half of the respondents said work travel had a positive impact on their mental wellbeing, but 47 per cent admitted that it added to the stress of the job.

At least one in four people who travel for work have sought professional help to tackle the associated stress.

Pictured is Leena van Raay who has experienced burn out due to work-related travel

Leena van Raay has experienced burnout due to work-related travel. Photo: Supplied

Why work travel is exhausting

Psychologist Dr Patrea O’Donoghue from Brisbane’s Mindful Psychology told TND many factors could contribute to work-related travel stress, including our stage of life.

Often, business travel involves an earlier start than usual, which can disrupt your whole routine. Being away from friends and family – or more broadly, our day-to-day support system – can also take a toll.

Meanwhile, the expectation to socialise while away for work can be draining for many individuals.

Dr Neil Slabbert, the Asia-Pacific chief medical officer for World Travel Protection, noted that people who had to travel overseas for work also often struggled with being in a different time zone to their family at home.

This is especially true for travellers with young children whose fixed routines, such as school and bedtime, can be disrupted by early or late calls from one parent,” he said.

Then, of course, there’s the problem of jet lag, which extends the stress long beyond the trip itself.

How to make work travel easier

In recent years, Raay has employed an interstate team, meaning she’s been able to cut back on her own travel. However, when she does have to take a work trip, she’s learning how to limit its negative impact.

“I didn’t know it back then, but I really need routine,” Raay said, explaining that while travelling, that routine would fall apart. “I’d just cram everything in.”

On one trip to Sydney at the end of last year, she made sure she had what she needed to successfully get through a day: Regular meals, a nice hotel, and the time and space to exercise.

O’Donoghue said finding a way to recreate your usual routine was key, as it offered stability in an unfamiliar environment. 

In particular, she recommends scheduling time for movement when possible, and avoiding an over-reliance on caffeine to maintain energy levels.

If an early flight is on the itinerary, O’Donoghue suggested planning ahead by getting to bed earlier a few days in advance.

“That way, you’re not totally wrecked by being a couple of hours short of sleep for a 6am flight,” she said.

At the same time, a shift in perspective can help shape a work trip.

“Look for what is it about the travel that could be a benefit,” she said.

Being away from home might offer the opportunity to explore a new city, after hours. Deciding how to spend that time is up to the individual – it could be as simple as settling down in the hotel with a good book, or catching up on some personal admin.

“If we plan ahead, we can make use of that free time, away from the distractions of home life,” O’Donoghue said.

“I think then, people can see it as a little bit of a blessing.”

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