Very few studies have been conducted to assess the impact of business trips on the spouses who stay home. Most studies have generally focused on the emotional problems encountered by the spouses of submariners, airline pilots and oil workers, but now new research done using the insurance and medical records of World Bank employees in a 12-month period between 1997 and 1998, has been looked at. It shows that the spouses of executives who make frequent business trips abroad face a much higher risk of falling sick with mental or emotional problems than the partners of executives who don’t travel.
All in all, over this one year period, 4 600 spouses made a claim, two-thirds women, one-third men. Among business travellers who made four or more international trips in one year, spouses filed 16% more claims for health treatment than those whose spouses who did not travel.
Intestinal problems and skin disease were a lot more common, but more specifically, claims for psychological disorders were nearly twice as many as the frequent travel group, while for stress-related disorders, the rate was triple.
The researchers, led by Lennart Dimberg of the World Bank’s occupational health services, say the corporate world still has to realise that spouses can suffer from ill health if their partner is often absent from home. Brief, frequent separations are probably more destructive than occasional, longer ones, they suggest, because frequent absences are more disruptive to family life and the returning traveller finds it harder to resume a normal routine, placing a much greater burden on the spouse to ensure the smooth running of the household.
According to other studies, social support is shown to be one of the greatest protective factors guarding against the development of mental illness, so it is easy to see why the spouses of travelling partners would be experiencing problems in this area. With far less support from their spouse that is away, practically as well as emotionally, due to the fact the spouse that is away is also more vulnerable to ill health, they are likely to have to take responsibility for much more, with less help.
This World Bank study also confirmed that frequent long-haul trips, a known health hazard to business people, are associated with high blood pressure, ulcers and other intestinal problems, depression and emotional distress.
Two-thirds of the World Bank’s 8 500 staff travel for business at least once a year. A third do so at least four times a year. So when adding up the numbers, the cost incurred by this increase in mental illness is great.
The study warns that the boundaries between the workplace and home are permeable. Corporations should look closely at the travel workload of their employees because anxiety about problems at home can be a major drag on a worker’s effectiveness. They state: “Promoting the well-being of spouses and family may be particularly important for companies that employ international business travellers, because of the potential impact on their functioning at work among stressed employees.”