Stress, the Business Traveler and Corporate Health:
An International Travel Health Symposium

Work-life Balance for Business Travelers - Challenges & Survival - April 27, 2000

Helen Frick, PhD, Manager, Staff Services, The World Bank

DR. QUICK: Our final presenter this morning before we go to Q&A is Helen Frick, who is manager for Staff Services Unit in Human Resources at the World Bank. She is responsible for career services, family and work life programs and performance management and what Jack just talked about 360 degree feedback. Dr. Frick is an expert in career services and human development. And before taking her current position, she developed a state of the art career center for the World Bank.

Please help me in welcoming Helen Frick.


DR. FRICK: Like Jack, I know you might want to stand up and stretch, but I have some low tech slides that I think you all have had passed out to you this morning.

What I want to do, first of all, is to see if Conchita Espino[ph] is in the room, Dr. Espino is in the room because I want to give special credit to Conchita Espino who works with me and who really is the brains behind the presentation today. So, when the questions come flying, I am going to call on her as well.

I also want to recognize Dr. Sara Sundstrom on our staff who helped collaborate and collate some of the data. Myra Jacobs and Maria Peters are two spouses who got very involved in this. One is a demographic expert and they also helped and became very enthusiastic.

So, I will be sharing today a little bit of what Bernhard said earlier about spouses and their families mirroring at least in the World Bank what we are seeing in staff.

Let me share with you a little bit of the sources of information where this comes from because as Dr. Quick said we have been counseling staff, and we are dealing not with psychological difficulties but rather with career issues, with performance issues and work life. We have a child-care counselor who helps staff locate child care and a school counselor who helps people understand what the schooling options are.

If there is a person in the Bank that I think catches most of the stress, it is probably that person dealing with schooling, because so much of the stress of the family seems to come down on that, and she happens to be the person.

So, we have combined nearly 3,000 different individuals every year for the past decade. We have also help focus groups and the spouses in preparation for this held several focus groups to talk about work life balance.

And then, I am going to focus primarily today about what we did. We did a preliminary survey ? We found that a lot of data can be mined from this and we know we can go back and learn a lot more.

But we think we have some interesting responses to share with you and at least begin to raise some questions in our minds as to what we need to go back and ask again.

We had a 36 percent response rate. We went to people who travel in the regions, of the Bank's regions and invited the professional staff who travel to respond. As Jim Striker said, 36 percent of our traveling staff who just took the time to fill these out we felt was really quite good. And although we invited all the spouses of what we call the professional staff done by grade to respond, we only got a 24 percent. But that is good. People like my spouse, I can guarantee you he just threw it in the trash because I do not travel for the Bank very much.

But we did get 561 spouses responding to our survey. And so, we have about 750 total. I am not going to spend a lot of time on what the profile looks like. What I can tell you is that we had probably 73 percent male, 27 percent female of the staff, whereas we had 80 percent female spouses. So, you can see that there are more women spouses who are talking about their husbands traveling.

We had about 70 percent of the people who answered whether they were spouses or traveling staff said they were highly stressed. So, only about 13 percent said it was low. So, we were getting people who were highly stressed and who took the time to tell us about it.

The other thing that we could say is, even though we didn't do a sophisticated stratified random sample or any of that, we did, in fact, get a fairly good representative sample in both areas. And we were surprised at that.

The one thing that I could say is that it is slightly skewed to younger people. So just bear in mind that we got more junior, both in spouses and staff, responding.

I want to tell you what were the elements we looked at. We looked at the amount of travel. That is, we were saying number of days traveled per year, the frequency of travel, the number of trips that they actually took, length of business trips, how long were they, unpredictability of the travel schedule, the business travel destinations, leaving on or before the weekends, taking time to rest and recuperate, missing celebrations with the family, and refusing business travel.

I want to just comment on three of those, that we found unexpected results, and, unlike the Bank's surveys so far, frequency of travel, we didn't find very much there. It was amount of travel, the number of days was more important here.

Spouses thought frequency of travel affected their staff but staff didn't find it significant. Another surprising finding was that the length of business travel was a concern for spouses' stress. Spouses said that is stressful; staff said it stresses my spouse and family out. But we didn't find a lot of quantitative significance on length of travel.

However, when we looked at the open-ended questions and people would just write, they wrote a lot about length of travel. So, we have got to go back and look at that again.

The third thing that surprised us, but it is also what we have found I guess in some of these other presentations, is that the business travel destination just didn't matter. It just was not a factor for staff. Evidently, they have adapted; I don't know. But we did not find anything significant.

About the only thing that we found was that if spouses said that their traveling member went through Africa as well as other countries, they had greater concern about safety and some health issues. But it was only when you combined Africa and multiple other destinations. So, those were some interesting—again, these are what I would call preliminary findings.

What were the things that we found that were having a negative impact? As I said earlier, the total number of days traveled affects both the staff and their family stress and their concerns about health and safety. So, the more days they were traveling—we also found that the uncertainty and the changes in travel dates, this is the factor that we found that had the most negative impact on families. When the dates started changing—and they do frequently in the Bank, I will tell you that—this had the most negative impact on family life.

And it led to missed celebrations which had a tremendously negative impact. This was borne out quantitatively.

Together, those first two have the most negative impact on staff and their families. That is what this little study showed—little but we had 750 respondents.

We found that leaving before weekends was too common for staff to even talk about. I mean, that just seemed to be the norm, that they left on a Friday, they left for the weekend, but it did indeed affect the spouses' feelings of stress. So, staff said that is it, and the family life was affected.

Not taking time to recuperate was also the norm. When pople come back, just as we have been describing earlier, they come back the day after, they come in and interestingly enough the family reported that didn't help the family at all if they did stay home. They thought it might help the traveler but it wasn't going to impact their lives.

What was interesting—and I put this inhere because I thought it was really quite interesting—is that the person who occasionally took recuperative leave, who stayed home and then sometimes didn't was more disruptive to the family and more stressful, and you could see the line just going up in terms of negative impact.

So again, the uncertainty, the changes and this person who sometimes stays home, sometimes doesn't is having a greater impact on the family than if they had just gone back to work I guess.

This is an important finding that I wanted to call your attention to because what we found that was most important in terms of having less negative impact on the family and on the staff stress level is the ability to control the timing, the length of the mission, ability to refuse business travel. And again these are self reports, but when spouses felt that their staff had that ability or when staff felt that, they actually showed substantially less stress and impact on the family.

And it was interesting that one correlation we got we ages that the older staff feel an ability to control this better than the younger ones. So, we have a lot of highly-stressed younger ones reporting and the older people in the Bank, probably the more seasoned and possibly in more senior positions, are able to turn it down, and that definitely lessens the impact on the family.

Upon return, we found, just as Bernhard was anecdotally telling you, that they come back tired, detached, irritable. We had almost 100 percent of the spouses—I was embarrassed to tell you this—describing their mates as being irritable and withdrawn when they come back. So, that is pretty significant.

Areas of greatest concern, and again these are borne out also by the numbers of staff we have talked to over the years. They have a tremendous concern for their children. One of the things that came out over and over in the written comments is the need to give advice, to help with academic concerns. Who is going to help me with my math homework when Dad is gone or who is going to do this or that?

Missing important events: Again, I cannot emphasize that enough. And this turns out—it is really quite shocking to me—to be almost the norm. The numbers of birthdays of children missed, occasions and so forth. Failure to understand their children upon their return, they don't know what has been going on, and the anger of their children. This is what concerns staff who are traveling.

Their own concerns—and again, it is repetitive but the tasks that pile up before they leave, the personal bills. People would write, "I have to do the yard work or I have got to see the lawn is ready, the house is ready, the bills are paid". And again, a gender difference, what many of the women talked about "I have to cook the meals in advance, get everything frozen for the family before".

So, some of these roles, while we have changed roles, it would appear at least in the comments that the burden still falls in many traditional sorts of ways. Huge administrative work, statement of expenses and all that pile up afterwards, difficulties reconnecting with children, family, spouses; concerns about health. People talk about regularly coming back with parasite and problems; lack of exercise.

Actually, a lot of staff said that when they disrupt their routine and go out on travel, they find that they are able to exercise less and loneliness, which we talked about.

This concept as we talked about, technology allows us to be more connected; it also allows us to have our staff at headquarters reaching us wherever we are and assigning work that is not mission travel related. So, they feel they are out there on a very specific kind of work to do and they are being called upon to do other things at the same time. That is a great concern.

The concern for spouses is first concern for the children. I spent last weekend reading all of these. While my staff did a lot of the statistical work, I spent some time reading just to get a feel. And if I read that clinging word once, I read it hundreds of time, the clinging of their children when the traveling person leaves, the sadness, loss of self-esteem, behavioral problems, school activities, and the disruption of meal and bedtime kinds of rituals, sleep patterns.

So you saw the sleep deprivation going all the way from the children to the spouse to the traveling staff member. And, as we have said earlier, when they come back, it doesn't change either because then they are off on some other time frame and the spouses will talk about what an incredible thing it is to have this person come back to bed and have these odd hours again.

Concern for the self: They are working to keep that traveling parent psychologically present for their children and trying to bring that parent and keep them there for the child. If there is a picture that I got from reading these surveys, one is of staff who are incredibly tired and really working full out and of spouses who are living as single parents. This is how they describe themselves. They have had to cope in that way, and that they are doing double duty, and that is what they have learned to do.

Their concern is for themselves about isolation. They also had anxiety about infidelity. Actually, we had some people saying, you know, I travel, my spouse travels, we are traveling so much I am not sure we are able to conceive. We are just not able to have enough sexual relationships to have children.

They talked about concerns for their traveling staff member and they were concerned about the stress, about their health and about the exhaustion of their traveling staff member.

Family composition, we did find some significant differences. Spouses reported greater stress if they did have children. It was not significant for staff whether they had children or not. So, it was an interesting difference for us.

Spouses without children tend to experience stress before or after a mission. So, I thought that was an interesting finding, that there is greater stress for spouses who do not have children before or after the mission travel. And once one of my counselors said, "Oh, yes, that is PTS; it is called pre-travel syndrome", that the staff are not only irritable when they return but beforehand because of all the work that they have to do.

Spouses with children experience the greatest stress during the mission travel. The number of adults—this was an interesting finding for me—the number of adults, whether somebody has a nanny, an extended family, some of the things we often think of for helping, we found no statistical differences on whether people had that kind of support at home or not.

I will share with you one of our counseling instincts over the years, over the decade has been that we feel—and we don't have the data to bear this out; this study did not and we need to look at it and find it—but we feel that we have a high number of single parents in the Bank and a high number of female primary breadwinners. And we feel that instinctively but we haven't run all the numbers to figure that out, because we see them as particularly high stressed.

And some of the things that we hear from some of these single parents is "I fly to Europe, I drop my child with their grandparents; I go on to Africa". It was just amazing to think of what they are doing to manage their lives. Some people have sent their children back for months at a time to live with their grandparents. This has been extremely disruptive, needless to say. Children are having to switch languages, schools and so forth.

So, for single parents who are traveling, this is incredibly difficult. And, in fact, one of the written comments was just what Bernhard earlier was describing, a staff member who is married to a schoolteacher, and when the staff member travels, it is exactly the anecdote that you were talking about in another organization; this is true in ours as well.

When you hear this person staying home, it was a teacher who brought the child into pre-school at the Bank, into the child-care center, then drove back out into the suburbs to teach, had to make different child care arrangements at night and so the stress is really quite high and we found that in the written comments.

We also found some written comments we didn't look at which were single staff. And single staff reported that they are traveling and they have no opportunity for a social life. They feel that they have to be somewhat guarded on their mission travel and they feel that the institution almost takes advantage of them because they are single; they say, "Oh, you can go out on another mission; great".

So, we need to take another look at that as to what kind of support is there for single staff.

I want to mention also gender differences. We did find a few. We found differences between the female spouses and the male spouses, that husbands are less likely to take recuperative leave if they have a female spouse and they are more likely to travel longer than if they have a female spouse. They worry more about safety, health issues, the female spouses do. They report travel changes affect their family more and the males perceive more stress in their spouse.

No gender differences actually found in the spouses concerning the children's behavior. They all talk about the impact on children's behavior, and the amount of stress that staff have on mission.

Another interesting finding was that there were no gender differences in the staff regarding their stress and their travel.

I will leave you with this. Those of you if you don't have handouts, please pick them up. I have plenty for you. But at the end of the handouts, I have some quotes from the survey which I think are quite telling.

A seven-year old, I forget what he looks like when he is gone so long. My husband missed significant life cycle events; it has been very hard. My child cannot speak yet, but when he waits for his father's return at the window saying "Papa, no". Another staff member who I didn't quote in here said when his child was learning to speak, he looked up at an airplane and pointed to the airplane and said "Papa".

So, what we have is a picture of tired staff, working hard. The positive, I would agree though, is that they are very dedicated and what comes through also is that the spouses feel that they are doing their part in holding the family together.

Thank you.

Disclaimer: These Proceedings have been produced from transcripts made from audio tapes. Efforts were made to check the accuracy of information with the various authors, but this accuracy is not guaranteed.

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