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BUSINESS TRAVEL: THE ROAD WARRIOR'S SURVIVAL GUIDE

Frequent Trips Can Create Nonstop Stress Even When the Traveler's Not on the Road

April 24, 2001|SCOTT DOGGETT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Two weeks ago, I was in Japan for a week, then I was in San Francisco for a day, and then I went to Paris for a week, and I just got back yesterday. Now here I am at work trying to figure out what day it is."

In other words, a typical Monday at the office for Tom di Maria. The 42-year-old executive director of Creative Growth Art Center in Oakland travels 200,000 miles a year on business, mostly to Europe and Asia.

Speaking from his office earlier this month, Di Maria sounded jet-lagged as he described the travel-related stress in his life: fatigue, friendships taxed by his frequent work trips, threatened transit strikes and missed opportunities at the office, to name just a few.

"But mostly, there's a feeling of compressed time. Coming back today, I have quite a pile of paper mail, e-mail, faxes, people needing to meet with me," he lamented. "Everything gets compressed, and then suddenly I'm supposed to find all this time to do everything."

A subculture of long-haul business travelers has existed in America since at least 1869, when the transcontinental railroad connected the coasts. Since then a planeload of studies has been done on the health risks associated with business travel. But until recently, surprisingly little research has focused on the mental tolls travel takes on suit-wearing nomads like Di Maria or their loved ones.

Recent studies confirm what business travelers knew all along: Business trips often are positive experiences, offering close collaborations with distant colleagues, the stimulation of different environments and a change of routine. But they also are a source of stress, and they often exact emotional payments from families and friends.

Bruce Merrell knows the personal costs too well. Speaking from a cell phone recently as he waited to board a plane at San Francisco International Airport, the frequently flying start-up-company consultant said his family often seems like "a fast train, and you're trying to catch up to whatever's going on in their lives. They're up to date and you're not, and you realize it isn't their fault."

Reflecting on his relationships with his two sons, who are now in college, he said, "The children often didn't understand why their father was away. Then sometimes I don't either."

Di Maria doesn't have a wife or children, but he says all his travel has had an enormous negative effect on his friendships. He spoke with a flight attendant while crossing the Atlantic earlier this month and realized he'd had a longer conversation with this stranger than he'd had with any friend in many weeks.

"I know some flight attendants better than I know some of my friends," he said.

Robert Werner, past president of Timex India and current president of Dua Consulting Inc., the U.S. arm of a New Delhi-based consulting group, flew in excess of 200,000 miles a year for more than a decade until he left Timex two years ago and curbed his annual jaunts to a mere 25,000 miles. As a financial officer at Timex and W.R. Grace & Co. before that, he often had to spend the month of September far from his family as he worked on budgets for the new fiscal year.

"My wife's birthday is on the 2nd of September, and our anniversary is the 22nd of the month," he said earlier this month from his office in Wallingford, Conn. "There were many years when I was not home for either of those occasions. And yes, that took a toll on our relationship."

His wife, Beth Werner, hasn't forgotten those absences. But what most upsets her is the damage all his time away did to his relationships with their sons, particularly their eldest, Chip, who is two years out of college and temporarily living at home. Since Werner left Timex, he and Chip have spent a lot of time under the same roof.

"But they very rarely do something together," she said. "It's like the Cat Stevens song, where his father never really had time for the son and when he does the son is too busy. . . . If we could do it over, I'm not sure we would do it the way we did."

*

Recent studies indicate that business travel anxiety has three main causes: the effect of travel on the family, cumulative fatigue and the logistics of travel. The studies also found that as many as one in every three business travelers experiences high levels of stress before, during or after a trip.

A recent study of health insurance claims filed by World Bank employees who traveled regularly on international business trips found that they were up to three times as likely as their office-bound counterparts to use health insurance for treatment of psychological disorders. Moreover, the study found a direct correlation between the number of trips taken and the frequency of World Bank business travelers seeking mental help.

These disorders are often founded in the logistics of travel, or, as Merrell put it: "Wanting to be someplace and being afraid that you're not going to be able to get there on time and having no control over the situation--it's the mother of stress."

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