We Can Do Better: Business Travel, Stress and Family

My son was an infant, but I had a long-term change management consulting project in London. I would bounce between California and the UK for weeks at a time.

One day I came home to my own son afraid of me, clinging to his father, refusing to reach for me. It was one of the worst moments of my life. I swore I'd never take big trips without my kids again, and I haven't.

But this doesn't mean I stayed home. My kids, including that baby who is now 17, have been all over the world with me, with a relative or nanny in tow.

There's been a lot of talk lately about the dearth of women in positions of executive power in the business world, and a growing concern about the availability of paid parental leave when a family welcomes a new child.

But there's another issue that bridges both concerns. An infant's needs don't stop at the three- or four-month mark when mom returns to work.

One Harvard University study found that women are significantly less likely to take overseas assignments than men, in part due to family concerns. Carlson Wagonlit Travel, the multinational travel agency, examined the factors that impact work travel stress and developed a Travel Stress Index that ties hundreds of dollars per trip in lost productivity to this stress. Parents who have children at home have higher stress levels on every trip.

A study of World Bank employees detailed the impact of travel stress on families, included spouses and children - if you want to break your heart, read the comments from kids. And it's not just about leaving, but also the stress of re-integrating into family life. Interestingly, the study compared World Bank workers to Hyatt Hotel employees, who travel less and face fewer abrupt changes to their travel schedules, and report being less stressed.

So what's the answer to lowering stress if you don't have control over your schedule?

Taking your kids along on business trips is one option - I do it. As they grew, I would take them out of school, because I believe the education they'd get traveling abroad far outweighed what they'd miss from at school for those few days. Of course, I paid their way and it didn't interfere with getting my job done.

I didn't ask permission; I just did it. I achieved my business goals, so nobody minded. But not everyone has that luxury.

This is where companies need to step up.

  1. Create travel guidelines for all parents - or better yet, anyone with family obligations (caring for elderly parents, for example). This isn't a "women's" issue. This is a national family issue. And by offering the same policy to everyone, there's less room for perceptions of favoritism, be it moms vs. dads or employees with more or less sympathetic managers.

  • Consider other options. Perhaps a mom can connect virtually to a meeting, or a dad cut a trip shorter. Or, perhaps a junior employee could attend in order to gain some valuable experience, as long as it's made clear to everyone that you're not looking to replace the person who stayed home.
  • Let employees have a say. This goes back to the Hyatt workers - they often had more control over their travel options, which made them feel empowered, and less stressed. As long as they perform at the level required - ask yourself: Why not?
  • Give them time off to recuperate. Expecting employees to return from a trip Tuesday night and hit the office Wednesday morning doesn't even give them time to unpack, much less reconnect with family or give their spouse/partner a break. Let them breathe a little, and they're far more likely to be productive once they do plug back into work.
  • If you find your business struggling to keep leaders in key positions when they start having families, then more favorable travel conditions are win-win.

    It's not about money, or even special concessions. It's about conversations, and giving a little to gain a lot - their dedication and talents, with less stress and all the benefits that brings.