In our rapidly globalised world, international travel has become essential to the success of many businesses and the norm for employees. It brings with it a host of opportunities, enabling employees to have a deeper connection with their contacts and cultures in which they do business, as well as a sense of freedom and personal growth. Businesses can often also benefit from more engaged and, as a result, more productive employees. However, it’s important to remember that there can be a downside too.

Our recent research, carried out with psychologist Dr Rachel Lewis, revealed some of the behavioural and psychological impacts of regular international travel for work. To fulfil Duty of Care, and foster a happy and productive mobile workforce, organisations need to understand these issues and how they can protect the mental health and physical wellbeing of their travelling employees.

Unhealthy habits 

Whether it’s an inexperienced traveller going to a new destination or a well-trodden path, being away from home can mean a break in normal routines. This means that habits, such as healthy eating patterns and regular exercise, can become neglected. Despite there often being fitness facilities in many hotels and access to healthy food, it takes  a conscious effort to take the gym kit and go to the fitness centre rather than the bar or replace a room service burger with a healthy alternative at the end of the day. Unsurprisingly, only 40% of international business travellers reported having a good work/life balance while abroad. Many also said they work longer hours when away, reducing ‘down time’ and potentially increasing stress levels.

Unfortunately, around a quarter of travellers experienced mental health issues which were more prevalent than normal, and nearly 31% suffered from emotional exhaustion, a core feature of burnout, on a weekly basis. Worryingly, this stress seems to affect women more; female respondents showed, on average, significantly higher levels of emotional exhaustion than males. But interestingly those with children reported lower levels of depression than those without children. Levels of reported stress were broadly similar for parents and non-parents. 

Risky behaviours 

Maintaining an engaged workforce is key to success and more than two thirds (67%) of respondents to the study reported increased engagement in their jobs due to travel. However, over a third (34%) reported that they are more likely to engage in a number of risky behaviours while away on business, compared to their behaviour at home. This trend was particularly evident amongst younger, less experienced employees. 

Top of the risky behaviours list is increased alcohol consumption, -perhaps not a huge surprise to anyone, but nonetheless the question is whether organisations are addressing these potential risks in policies. Remarkably, 34% reported that they’re more likely to eat in unhygienic places, with stomach issues being one of the most common medical causes of inconvenience to travellers, causing disruption to thousands of business trips each year. This highlights the need for travellers to be reminded of the importance of food hygiene and safe drinking water before they travel.

In lower volume (2%), but potentially with dire consequences, are those who responded that they are more likely to use drugs than at home.

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. As well as this, a huge 85% aren’t more concerned about their safety while they’re away compared to when they’re at home.  Not that travellers should feel unsafe, but this feeling of comfort could lead to riskier behaviours.

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. 

How can businesses support their travelling employees?

While many organisations are taking care of the logistics of business travel, such as booking hotels and transport; when it comes to health and wellbeing, it can often be a different matter. Our research found that there is a lack of provision in terms of mental health support for mobile workers. With only 1 in 5 (21%) business travellers surveyed saying they were offered mental health support, and just 25% a wellness programme. 

This lack of support is not just detrimental to employees and their wellbeing, but can also hurt the businesses bottom line. As those travellers suffering from stress and mental health issues won’t be able to carry out their work as effectively.

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 practices around travel that encompass individual differences, but also monitoring the mental health of the travelling population. It is recommended that mental health monitoring is included in pre- and post-travel health checks, in addition to the physical checks. This will encourage making mental health discussions part of the normal conversation within the organisation. Ensure that any feedback survey post trip includes not just logistics, but also questions on mental health and psychological experience.  

To learn more about this issue, download the white paper.

NES & Global Mobility 

At NES, we have a team of Global Mobility experts who are able to alleviate the mobility burden for clients and candidates alike. We currently look after 12,000+ contractors across the globe and are well placed to support clients with their mobile workforce needs.

Our Global Mobility team are expatriates themselves so they know how stressful relocating can be. It’s important you seek help and advice from experienced professionals. At NES, we can help candidate’s experience a smooth relocation via our designated assignment support services.