Business Travel’s Personal Toll: Identity Threat Or Reality Check?

By | March 10, 2017

Those who travel for business view warnings about the mental and physical hazards either as an “identity threat” or a “more concerning reality check.” This was a finding from an academic study published last week on the reaction to an earlier study exploring the “darker side of hypermobility.”

The first study argued that the perceived glamour of frequent travel overshadows the actual physiological, psychological and social repercussions. It was published in 2015 by Scott A. Cohen from the University of Surrey and Stefan Gössling from Sweden’s Linnaeus University.

Many media outlets reported on it. We alluded to it as part of an exploration into so-called traveler friction.

Due to the large number of user-generated comments from the public about the findings, the researchers took the next step. University of Surrey’s Paul Hanna joined them in authoring “The dark side of business travel: A media comments analysis.”

The trio analyzed 433 comments on 20 news articles about the original study. They found a roughly equal split of positive and negative viewpoints about frequent business travel. They also discerned two “key identities” characterizing the responses.

They called the first group the “flourishing hypermobile.” These commenters saw business travel as “integral” to their identity and their happiness. For them, there may be a bit of “romanticism” in being a world traveler.

They deny business travel’s health implications. Or, they at least do things to overcome them — like diligently exercising and eating well. They don’t dwell on the snafus but rather take “pleasure in overcoming adversity.” They also may show a tendency to try to “outsmart” their employer. “Instead of complaining about having to travel,” wrote one commenter, “embrace the opportunity you have been given to explore different places on your company’s dime!”

personal toll

Image: Reuters/Carlo Allegri

The researchers described this identity type as demonstrating “how control and agency have enabled strategies (pacing oneself, avoiding extra segments, selecting particular flight times)” to minimize business travel stressors.

Flourishing hypermobile commentary also “is littered with tropes of social status symbols.” These related primarily to frequent flyer program tiers and premium classes of service. “All function as an active challenge to the presentation of the negative impacts of frequent business travel,” according to the study, “and help to mobilize and maintain the position of the flourishing hypermobile.” The same is true of free travel earned through loyalty programs.

There also are skeptics in this group. One commenter called the original study “more bovine droppings from ‘academics’ attempting to justify their existence and their large budgets of ‘funding,’ i.e., taxpayers money being squandered on rubbish research.” Another wrote that business travel isn’t the biggest psychological risk; rather, it’s “doom and gloom claims” from researchers with “far too much time on their hands.”

The study’s authors suggested these cynics may be in self-defense mode. It happens “when an individual is faced with the disjuncture between their identity as an individual that participates in a particular activity, and the presentation of evidence that suggests that identity is undesirable.”

They also wrote that those in earlier stages of their careers are “far less likely” to denounce their lifestyle, which would lead to cognitive dissonance.

On the other end, veteran travelers are more likely to criticize frequent travel, perhaps “even regretting their earlier lifestyles.”

The more seasoned are more likely to associate with the study’s second identity type, the “floundering hypermobile.”

These commenters “seek solace” in public discourse highlighting business travel’s risks. They recognize how, for them, it “engenders a fragmented and problematic identity.” Those in this camp want to travel less but emphasize that they can’t.

Some of their remarks convey disempowerment, disorientation, loneliness and distress. “Just the thought of getting on a plane filled me with dread and anxiety,” wrote one. According to another, business travel is “cramped and tiring, [with] crap food and a punishing work schedule in a different time zone.”

There were mentions of coping mechanisms, like drinking alcohol. Sacrificing a home life was a major theme. “Family life?” asked one commenter. “What family? They don’t consider me as one of them!”

Some of those in the floundering group took issue with the notion that business travel is glamorous. In their comments, nostalgia for the idealized view is “presented as an irrational way of thinking,” according to researchers.

“I still know a lot of people who take perverse pride in being stuck on airplanes for a significant proportion of their lives, just as coal miners used to feel macho about going down the pit to get pneumoconiosis,” according to one comment. “Self-deception may be vital when you have no control over your travel plans but for the rest of us avoidance is the nicest strategy of all.”

According to another, “Everyone, including my x-wife (sic) thought I was having ‘the time of my life,’ always in first class, always upgraded, always expensive steak houses, cool cities, top-tier hotels … etc. Reality is it sucked.”

A recent LinkedIn discussion accentuates why people view business travel as either a benefit or burden. It was about a Booking.com survey finding that 30 percent of respondents would take a pay cut for the opportunity to travel more. The original post drew hundreds of comments. Several were dumbfounded by the data. Some questioned the reliability of the survey’s source. Many guessed that respondents answering that way must have been younger workers who probably have no spouse or children. Clearly the stage of life that people are in highly influences their perspective.

Conclusions

The Cohen, Hanna and Gössling study points to an “emerging research problem” regarding whether and how concerns about well-being affect changes in travel.

The authors painted a rather defeatist picture. Their research indicated that “such changes are unlikely: flourishing hypermobiles are unlikely to change behavior, while floundering hypermobiles viewed reductions in business travel as beyond their perceived locus of control.” They added that it would be hard to change the public perception that business travel is an occupational perk.

As a result, they argued that a “repositioning” of how business travel is perceived must stem from “structural transitions” within organizations.

Getting there may require a few things. For example, “new lines” of study should tie together human resources management, travel management, safety regulations and a deeper understanding of the health consequences of frequent travel.

More tangibly, the study suggested organizations adopt more employer-friendly policies: encouraging remote conferencing when in-person interaction is not crucial; limiting employees’ nights away from home and how often they travel long distances; allowing premium class on those long trips; requiring rest between them; bundling multiple trips into single itineraries when geography permits; and disfavoring connecting flights.

Additional info: The authors noted that public discourse on business travel is “overwhelmingly” positive. Though some studies have addressed the negative effects, they are “far less prominent.”

Though the original study discussed frequent leisure and business travel, the follow-up focused on comments in “direct response to media reporting on the business travel aspects” of the study.

The authors pointed out that the 433 comments reviewed are “not representative of the wider population.” They came only from individuals who (presumably) read one of the articles and were willing to publicly post a comment. These individuals “almost exclusively” were current or former frequent business travelers, leaving out the perspectives of frequent travelers’ family members. Demographics of those submitting comments were not available. Skews based on gender or geography, for example, “are not objectively identifiable.”

The researchers analyzed comments on articles published about the first study in these media outlets: Daily Mail, Der Standard, Fast Company, FAZ, Financial Times, Frugal Travel Guy, Huffington Post, Lawyers Weekly, Mashable, ND TV, News Medical, news.com.au, One Mile At A Time, Science 2.0, Smart Company, Smarter Travel, The Advertiser, The Economist, The Telegraph and Zeit Online.

Here’s the second study’s formal citation: Cohen, S.A., et al. The dark side of business travel: A media comments analysis. Transport. Res. Part D (2017)

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