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Upgrading the Stress Levels

By Paul Burnham Finney
October 14, 2008
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As if the shoes-off routine, charges for checked bags and missed flight connections were not enough, business travelers now have to cope with a global financial crisis that is diverting their attention as well as rattling their contacts here and abroad.

It all adds up to a spike in the unusual stresses that plague business travel, from unfamiliar hotels to sudden switches in travel plans. Experts at the Mayo Clinic and Harvard Medical School along with independent psychologists agree that road life now is more stressful than in the past.

“Back in the 1980s, you could drive to the airport and walk to the gate without thinking of terrorist threats or banks collapsing,” said Rex P. Gatto, a business psychologist based in Pittsburgh. “Now there’s only anxiety.”

In its latest annual “Stress in America” survey, based on 2,507 online interviews in September, the American Psychological Association found that the crisis on Wall Street was the No. 1 cause of anxiety. And participants in the survey said the places where they felt most vulnerable to stress were in the office and on a business trip.

Researchers have uncovered links between the stress experienced by frequent business travelers and dozens of physical ailments, including some cancers and heart disease. A landmark study of some 10,800 employees at the World Bank in 1997 found that those who traveled accounted for 80 percent more medical claims than nontravelers.

In the current economic turmoil, Nancy Molitor, a psychologist in Wilmette, Ill., an affluent Chicago suburb, said that many more of her clients had problems related to stress. “In my 20 years of practice I’ve never seen such anxiety among my banking and business patients,” she said.

The globalization of business had already added to the stresses of business travel.

“When you travel in another country with another culture and try to get multitask projects done to meet deadlines, you can feel overwhelmed,” said Dr. Abinash Virk, director of the Mayo Clinic’s travel program.

Several of the experts said technological advances might be adding to the troubles. “Technology is not the best friend of business travelers,” Mr. Gatto said. “Getting e-mails all day. Doing a deal on your cellphone while trying to beat the long lines at an airport. Frequent fliers just take on too much.”

Dr. Mary FitzPatrick, associate professor at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York, said she believed “the Internet keeps people in touch more than they should,” adding: “And there’s the CNN phenomenon — a constant, 24-hour barrage of disturbing news.”

Of course, stress is not all bad. It can make workers more productive and resourceful. The physiologist Hans Selye, called the father of stress research, identified “good” stress — the adrenaline rush that helps people overcome obstacles — and “chronic” stress, which may easily turn into distress.

Some travelers are better able to deal with the travails of business trips than others. Take a flight delay of several hours, for example.

“When the word comes over the loudspeaker, some passengers take it in stride — watching TV, browsing the shops — while others can’t stop running up to the counter for the latest update,” said Howard Glazer, associate attending psychologist at New York Presbyterian Hospital. “There you have it — two personality types dealing with the same event. One takes it as a small bump in the road while the other considers it exasperating.”

Stress, he added, “clearly is in the eye of the beholder.”

Backstopped by many medical studies, cognitive behavior therapists are generally confident that there are effective ways for business travelers to handle stress.

One of the most popular treatments is the stress management system developed in the 1970s by Dr. Herbert Benson, director emeritus of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine in Boston. His techniques for easing stress range from “meditation on the go” to deep breathing and massages, all described in the book “The Relaxation Response.”

Dr. Virk, of the Mayo Clinic, said she favored taking time out each day to relax. “Go for a walk,” she said. “Think about something unrelated to what you’re doing on your business trip. Wherever you are — here or in Cambodia — exercise.”

“There are executives who travel a lot and can sleep four hours and still be calm,” she said. “Discipline is the key to coping with stress. Veteran travelers know how to break the daily mental process and look at things with a different perspective.”

Are some business travelers getting better at handling stress?

“You have to be,” Dr. Virk replied. “The world now is not how it was. Everything happens at a faster pace.”

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