A Refresher Course on Avoiding Burnout

While company-subsidized travel may sound exciting to those who have not done it, it is often accompanied by a stress-provoking schedule all too familiar to frequent business travelers: Sprint to the plane, settle in and break out the briefcase. Upon landing, rush off the plane to a meeting. Following the meeting, rush to the hotel and collapse.

The pace can be nonstop and an invitation to burnout, especially for travelers who fit the psychological profile of those prone to it.

"Most are high achievers--and driven," said Herbert Freudenberger, a New York psychologist who specializes in treating burnout and author of "Burnout" (Bantam, $4.99). "They tend to be perfectionists."

Their driving ambition is often fueled by a need for approval, said Ruth Luban, a Laguna Beach burnout expert with a master's degree in psychology. They're also idealistic, multitalented "givers--the kind of people searching for meaning through their work," she said.

Besides personal makeup, circumstances play a role in burnout.

"Combine frequent stress with frequent travel, downsizing, reorganizing, last-minute changes [made by either bosses or airlines] and burnout often occurs," said Luban, adding that the condition is marked by loss of a sense of personal power and control. While workers feeling the effects of stress can bounce back by taking a long weekend or a vacation, those who are burned out still feel exhausted after time off. She defines burnout as "a process of erosion that occurs over a period of time."

Symptoms include sleep disturbances, irritability, relationship problems and a feeling of being overwhelmed (which, in turn, can cause the person to withdraw), Luban said. But most of all, there's denial, with burned-out workers insisting they are OK.

Despite that bleak picture, there are strategies to keep travel burnout at bay, the two experts agreed.

"Try not to work on the plane," Freudenberger tells his clients. It's a common habit and for many, "an extension of their work-work-work pattern," Freudenberger said.

Because it's often difficult to persuade travelers not to open a briefcase aloft, Luban suggests a compromise: "If you have to work on the plane, alternate periods of work and relaxation. And absolutely do not use alcohol to relax. Use music."

In addition, pick wisely the type of work done aloft, Luban said. Work on the budget in the office; do background reading on the plane.

Corporate budget crunches often make flying first class impossible, but Freudenberger tells his clients to negotiate. Beyond a certain number of miles--whatever a traveler's personal comfort zone dictates--ask to fly business or first class, where there is a little more room.

To ease stress en route, walk the plane aisles, Freudenberger said. "In [roomier] business or first-class sections, do pushups. People might think you're a kook but you are going to feel better." On longer flights, taking along a sleep mask can help coax sleep or enhance rest, Freudenberger said.

Try to squeeze in an overnight stay or, at least, a few hours of relaxation before the first business meeting. Arrange transportation from the airport to the hotel instead of having business contacts provide it.

"If you are picked up the minute you get off, you have to talk well, be alert," he said. There's no quiet time to collect thoughts. Catching a shuttle gives travelers a chance to decompress and get their bearings, without being worried about how rumpled or tired they may look or incoherent they may sound.

Pick a hotel that caters to business travelers by including services such as fax machines, voice mail and speedy check-outs, Luban said.

Get approval to upgrade lodging in return for shortening the business trip by a few days, Luban said. A shorter trip is often possible, she tells clients, if they cut down on socializing or sightseeing time.

During business meetings of several days, minimize or drop out of late-night socializing, Freudenberger said. "Bug out with stories. Tell them, 'I have a headache.' " One of his executive clients regularly excuses himself from cocktail hours and instead plays tennis or swims.

If getting out of evening festivities is impossible, squeeze in what Luban calls a transition or decompression ritual, switching momentarily from work to play mode. "For me, the break would be to get outdoors, whether sitting on a bench or walking, to reconnect with nature," she said. Others might enjoy walking around to see the sights; still others might enjoy listening to music. Even a brief, 15-minute break can improve attitude, she said.

Frequent business travelers who don't feel burned out--or who have recovered--tell Luban they have developed specific strategies to avoid burnout. For telephone calls back to the office, for example, one executive finds a relaxed lounge in the hotel, convention center or airport from which to place calls, thus avoiding the noisy and stressful environment of hotel phone banks.

Another takes along his own music to listen to en route, while munching on healthy food he has brought from home.

One frequent traveler says that telling his spouse about the business trip as soon as it is announced helps reduce stress-provoking guilt at leaving his family. On a more practical level, it helps his spouse arrange her work and family schedule during his absence. The couple also pencils in family time, during which the traveling worker agrees to try not to schedule out-of-town meetings.

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The Healthy Traveler appears the second and fourth week of every month.

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