Editors note: This story was updated on Aug. 1, 2018.
Frequent business travel can have significant, negative effects on a person's physical and mental health, research suggests—and corporations aren't doing much to help, Tammy LaGorce writes for the New York Times.
The physical and mental effects of frequent business travel
According to LaGorce, providers at CDC, the International Society of Travel Medicine (ISTM), and other organizations have said they are seeing a rise in health conditions—from weight gain and insomnia to viruses—among people who travel frequently. And while providers noted that research on the topic is limited, the few studies that have been conducted on the topic suggest business travel can have serious effects on health.
For instance, a 2011 study from the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University found that the average body mass index (BMI) of business travelers who were on the road for at least 21 nights a month was higher than those who were on the road for just one to six nights a month—a difference that amounted to a difference of 10 pounds for someone who is 6 feet tall.
The researchers recently conducted a follow-up study, currently under peer review, which came to largely the same conclusions: "What we're seeing is kind of like a U-shaped curve. People who travel the most and people who don't travel at all have the worst health," Andrew Rundle, a researcher on the studies and a professor of epidemiology at Columbia, said. "If you're in your 30s and you're traveling a lot and you're eating poorly and you have poor access to physical activity, that starts to catch up with you. Over the next 10 years or so, the consequences start to become things like high blood pressure and diabetes and obesity. Long-term chronic issues."
The follow-up study also sheds light on mental health issues among frequent business travelers, according to Rundle, such as alcohol misuse and injuries related to sleep deprivation. "These are things that can have really immediate consequences for yourself and your career," Rundle said.
Meanwhile, a 2015 article from the Harvard Business Review pointed out that frequent business travel both accelerates aging and increases the risk of having a heart attack or stroke. According to the article, more than 70% of business travelers reported having an unhealthy lifestyle, which included excess drinking, a lack of exercise, and a poor diet—factors that all "impair job performance."
Need for further research—and corporate action
The problem is exacerbated by the lack of sufficient research on the issue, providers said, and corporations must begin addressing the strain of business travel—particularly given how common it is nowadays.
Martin Cetron, director of CDC's division of global migration and quarantine, pointed out, "Things are merging and changing in the world of business travel. … Whether trips are frequent short ones or long ones, the intensity of travel schedules is putting people under a lot of pressure." He added, "The whole noncommunicable disease side of travel health is something that's been under-researched."
Separately, calling on corporations to be more proactive about addressing the issue, Phyllis Kozarsky, a professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases at Emory University School of Medicine and the medical director for TravelWell, said she encounters many patients who schedule an appointment for a physical condition related to travel, such as a sinus infection, but who simply "burst out crying" when she meets them in her office. "They're so tired and worn out from traveling that they just need to see someone and talk about it," she said. "They don't want to share it with their business because they're concerned about walking up the corporate ladder and their ability to succeed."
Greeley Koch, executive director of the Association of Corporate Travel Executives, added that while business travelers may be increasingly concerned about the effect of travel on their health, the power to implement healthier travel policies—such as travel limits or scheduled personal time on a work trip—belongs entirely to supervisors. "It's really a mixed bag when it comes to addressing these issues. It depends on the company," he said (LaGorce, New York Times, 11/27).
Traveling this summer? How to avoid the flu when you fly.
Download this infographic to learn about both the obvious and less obvious locations where germs on planes are rampant.