Business travel is not as glamorous or enviable as marketers would have us believe. Of all employees in a company, none are more susceptible to burnout than road warriors. Their burnout rates are likely unsustainable. On top of that, conventional practices of business travel may fuel their exhaustion and hide the best solutions to the problem.

A Grim Picture

Burnout — physical or mental exhaustion caused by stress — is an epidemic in corporate America. In a study conducted by Kronos Incorporated and Future Workplace, 95 percent of HR leaders said that burnout is “sabotaging workforce retention.”

Burnout is not confined to employees of certain age, seniority, or roles. The Wall Street Journal reports that 96 percent of senior leaders report feelings of burnout, and a third describe it as “extreme” according to a Harvard Medical School study. Burnout is so pervasive that Johnson & Johnson created an anti-burnout program that costs $100,000 per executive per year and involves a dietician, a physiologist, and an executive coach.

Travel can trigger or intensify burnout. One peer-reviewed study found that international business travel is associated with “excess alcohol consumption, sleep deprivation, and diminished confidence to keep up with the pace of work.” Other research suggests that travel accelerates aging, weakens the immune system, and elevates the risk of mental illness.

This research paints a grim picture for road warriors. Growing awareness of burnout and the consequences of travel may hinder recruiters from filling jobs that require heavy travel.

The Autonomy Problem

There is still hope for road warriors. In a study of World Bank Group employees, 75 percent of the staff reported high or very high stress due to business travel. That rate isn’t encouraging, and the study notes that staff “seem to be particularly concerned about the negative impact on their family and lack of control over travel.”

Control may be the unspoken key to preventing travel burnout. Multiple studies suggest that decision-making autonomy is essential to satisfaction and engagement at work. Business travel usually reduces employee autonomy.

Most travel policies are designed to manage costs and keep travelers safe. Often, employees feel like they have limited choices over airlines, hotels, amenities, and scheduling. Salespeople, in particular, are at the mercy of clients who determine their schedules on the road. If travelers feel powerless over their itineraries, of course the trip will feel stressful.

Power to the Traveler

If greater autonomy reduces traveler burnout, then HR and management can take steps to improve employee retention and make road warriors’ jobs more rewarding and less stressful. A few approaches seem promising:

  1. Encourage “Bleisure” Travel: The antithesis of burnout is leisure. Often, business travelers fly somewhere exciting but can’t enjoy it. Let employees combine business trips with leisure. If your director of sales flies out on a Thursday, why force them to return on Friday? Let them stay at the destination and have a “bleisure” weekend that takes advantage of off-peak airfares that business travelers rarely book. In many cases, the company can save money by letting executives fly home on a Sunday.
  2. Make Budgets Flexible: Some business travelers would prefer to fly coach and stay at a hotel with a great workout room. Others would rather fly business class but stay with a friend. Let travelers distribute budgets the way they’d prefer. You can incentivize travelers to spend consciously but still empower them to choose the amenities they need to manage stress on the road. Strict spending policies create friction and accelerate burnout.
  3. Stop Stigmatizing Burnout: Modern business culture pressures employees to look energetic and happy. If 96 percent of senior leaders experience burnout, assume that your hardest-charging employees will too, whether they show it or not. Top performers need freedom to refuse a business trip for the sake of their health, family, and other life priorities. Give them permission to talk about burnout and the role that travel plays.

The stress of business travel affects individuals differently. Give road warriors freedom to manage the impact on their terms.

Dan Ruch is founder and CEO of Rocketrip.

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