Corporate travel is somewhat of a gigantic monster to come to terms with, especially when it begins devouring any remaining probability of maintaining a healthy work-life balance.
To be honest, I’ve never really understood the whole work-life balance debate coming from people who spend their working life on the road. Surely they knew what they were getting into before they signed up for the job, right? I’ll get to that one later.
The reality is that you can’t expect to have any sort of balance when seventy per cent (sometimes more) of your time is spent away from your home. But all that depends on what you consider to be part of your “life” component in the work-life equation; and, I dare say, that there are as many different definitions for it as there are people on the planet. Each one of us will have differing priorities and needs.
In general, though, I would argue that the work traveller tends to fall into one of two broad categories: (1) those that can attain their “life” component while on the road, and (2) those that can only satisfy it when back at home.
People who fall into the first category tend not to have any hard ties to their home city, country, friends or family — all of which would require their physical presence. They are more likely to be single and without any long-term extracurricular commitments. Let’s call this group of people the ‘Independents’.
Those that fall into the second category tend to be the opposites of the first. They tend to have families or are in relationships, they may be involved in community activities, members of sporting clubs or even enrolled in a language class. Let’s call this group, the ‘Committed’. I’ll expand more on these two groups shortly.
A while back, I had a manager who considered the weekend to be part of my work-life balance. His logic was that: if in the course of my work I must travel for three consecutive weeks, then the three weekends should count towards my “life” component. I couldn’t understand his logic back then, nor can I understand it now.
Three weeks equals twenty one days in total. In other words, out of the 21 days that I was away, in his opinion, 6 days contributed to my “life” and, as a result, my total utilization was counted as 71% (15/21) and therefore very close to the stipulated job description quota of 70% travel.
To the corporation, this type of calculation makes perfect sense and fits in with the allocated work percentage. Similarly, the calculation doesn’t offend anyone who is a member of our Independent group and doesn’t need to be back home for any of those extracurricular activities.
However, this calculation starts to not only fail, but completely comes unravelled when the employee is one of the Committed type. Their weekends are spent away from family and friends, they are unable to attend that Spanish class, nor are they able to participate in a football game with their local team. Torn from their “life,” the Committed are unable to unwind or relax because the tools needed to achieve either are far away. To these people, a five star hotel doesn’t even begin to compensate for what they left behind.
Given these definitions and background information, should a weekend be counted towards the “life” component in a work-life balance? I think not.
My take on this, is that a weekend, or any free time, that is spent away from home should be compensated for accordingly. Similarly, any travel that occurs on the weekend, during the night or public holidays, falls into the same category. We have a right to choose what, where, who and how we spend our free time without any interference from the employer. Anything else should be counted as work.
Going back to our original question: “Surely they knew what they were getting into before they signed up for the job?” To answer it, I’m going to shed some light on people and how they deal with job descriptions.
Let’s assume you’re looking for that next career move, one that will give you a better paying job, more excitement and perhaps, exposure to cultures and projects you could only daydream of. As luck would have it, you spot that perfect job. You read the job description and realize that it has the potential to surpass every one of your expectations.
But there’s a small hitch. One that’s not necessarily hidden in any obscure footnote. There’s one line that is somewhat bothersome to the overall description: “may require up to 70% travel.”
It doesn’t seem all that bad, especially since most of the criteria you’ve searched for fit so well. The human beings that we are, we tend to look at averages rather than concrete numbers, especially when the numbers are surrounded by soft-sounding probabilistic words like “may” or “occasional”. Right now, that “may require up to 70% travel” doesn’t seem to be that much of an issue.
Firstly, on the most part, human beings tend to be quite optimistic. Hearing the words “may require” seems to imply, at least on the surface, that these will be exceptional circumstances and that an average of that statistic would probably apply in a real life situation. Hence, our brain hones in on the 40-50% target and subconsciously commits to this level of travel.
Secondly, when looking at a job description for the first time, people always read it from their own perspective. What I mean by that, is that most of us will be looking for a job that fits in with our aspirations, not with what the employer will ultimately demand — we’re quite stubborn and selfish in that way. And this is where we tend to get burnt a second time round. Let me explain.
Unless you’re trying to land a volunteering job, you need to understand that a company’s primary reason for existence is to make money. And although the organization may want to attract the best possible talent, their key objective is to achieve this at the lowest possible price. There are exceptions, but they are few and far between. As such, words like “may,” in business speak, usually translate to “will,” and the possibility of occasional “70% travel” turns into a routine and regular occurrence.
Who’s to blame then? I think both parties. The employee: for ignoring the travel numbers and being preoccupied with their own needs; and the employer: for presenting figures with an overly optimistic slant and misrepresenting true conditions.
My experience has been less than perfect to say the least. Maintaining a travel schedule that runs at 70% is quite difficult when you begin to have family commitments. Any journey longer than two weeks ends up being very emotionally draining.
To dampen the pain of separation, most people will deepen their commitment to the project. At times it can seem as though the evening phone call to connect back with family is plagued by deliberate distance. On the one hand, we try to reconnect using whatever crude technologies we have at our disposal, and on the other, we try to stay at an arm’s length to avoid the pain.
It’s a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde routine which causes resentment towards oneself for the cold shoulder, as well as the job, for causing the separation in the first place. Depression nor the usual ways of silencing it are never far away.
Ultimately, the close bond you share with your loved ones begins to take on the characteristics of a Long-distance Relationship. You’re neither here, nor there. Not there because of the physical separation, and not completely in the moment on location because the mind would rather be back home.
Furthermore, the overall stress is further exacerbated by the physical logistics of travel. Wanting to maximise the time with our families means that we’re probably going to travel on a Sunday in order to start work by Monday morning. If you’re unlucky and unfavourable airline connections force you to be en route for two days, you’ve pretty much lost the whole weekend.
If that’s the case on either side of the 21 day project, then get ready to say goodbye to four out of those six weekend days which management deemed “life”. With this in mind, your 70% travel schedule starts to look more like 90% without any chance for rest before reaching either destination.
How can we expect any long-term equilibrium in a world where the employee is tasked with looking after their own “life” balance without being given the same flexibility in controlling the “work” component? That’s a question you’ll have to answer. But I would like to leave you with a quotation which touches on stress and its impact on employee burn out:
“Traditional stress-management programs placed the responsibility of reducing stress on the individual rather than on the organization-where it belongs. No matter how healthy individual employees are when they start out, if they work in a dysfunctional system, they’ll burn out.”
— Esther M. Orioli