2022 will hopefully be the year that we are able to get back to business travel on a wider scale, even if not all business destinations (such as China) are feasible. After a couple of years of being mainly at home, all of us are out of the routine of multiple back to back business trips & so I put together these self care tips to help stay healthy on business trips without burning out.
There’s a difference between having an occasional trip for work, travelling regularly for work and “business travel being the major part of your working life”. Whilst this post will be relevant for anyone who has an occasional night away from home for the company, it’s mainly aimed at those who have business travel as an integral part of their professional lives & who consequently may spend more time away from home than with their loved ones.
These points all play into one another so if you want to be the best version possible of yourself when away, then you need to think about how to build elements of healthy business travel into your routine (& I don’t mean hand sanitiser & masks although they will probably be with us for a while still as well).
These points are also valid during stressful periods at home – you still need the same remedies to stay healthy in the long term.
Table of Contents
Sleep is obviously one of the key factors that makes a difference between feeling half dead when you come home from a business trip or feeling as if you’ve been rather busy but are now energised for new projects and your home life. Sleep is also a topic that many people find difficult away from home, especially if they find it hard to sleep in a strange place or in a bed which feels softer (or harder) than they used to (be warned, beds in Chinese hotels (except some of the international ones) tend to be pretty hard!). And of course the sheer fact of travelling across time zones for international business trips can mean that firstly you may miss a night’s sleep somewhere in a plane and secondly that even once you arrive that you have problems to get a good night’s sleep.
Time zones & Jetlag
If you travel east or west around the world then it very quickly happens that you are in a different time zone to the one that your body clock is most closely attuned to. There are whole doctoral theses written about time differences and how our bodies deal with these, but in general it is usually accepted that our bodies acclimatise at the rate of around one hour per day to time differences.
So if you travel to somewhere which has the time difference of four hours to your hometown then on average you probably will need four days to fully adjust to the time difference there. As with everything else these average values are something that varies from one person to the next, and most people that I know who travel heavily for business purposes usually don’t struggle to acclimatise to small differences of just a couple of hours (and sometimes even more).
There are many ways that people advise to try and get over the sleep problems which are caused by jetlag.
One of the best options is to ensure that you sleep in a comfortable environment. That means that your hotel room shouldn’t be too warm, although for most people it also means it shouldn’t be freezing (I’m the exception to that as I’ll usually turn the aircon down to minimum).
Realistically speaking combating jetlag and the effect of time zones begins the minute that you step onto the plane. My personal mantra on business trips has always been that you should sleep as much as possible, whenever possible and I am lucky enough to be able to sleep pretty much anywhere however uncomfortably cramped I might be sitting. I know that this isn’t a talent that was gifted to everybody, however I do believe that you can take steps to facilitate sleep or at least rest during a long flight on your way outbound for business travel.
For example you can ensure that:
- you are dressed in comfortable clothes
- that you exercise on the day of travel, so that when you get so that when you board the plane you are tired and ready to sleep if it’s a night flight
- you can avoid eating heavy meals outside of your normal rhythm. So for me if I board a plane at 10 pm and dinner is served then chances are I’m not actually going to eat that meal. As soon as the plane has taken off and reached cruising altitude then I will be trying to get to sleep. Although in many cases to be perfectly honest I will have been asleep the minute that the stewardess has started to give the safety announcement at the beginning. ?
Any sleep that you can get on the flight is time that will stand you in good stead during a business trip as it means that you will arrive less exhausted.
Once you arrive at your destination you should try to keep in the rhythm of the destination. So if it’s lunchtime when you arrive then you should make sure that you stay up until a normal time to go to bed in the evening. This is usually quite easy on a business trip as chances are that you will go directly from the airport to a business meeting and have no time to fall asleep somewhere.
During a business trip
During the other days of your business trip you should try as far as possible to keep regular hours for sleep to ensure that you get as much sleep as possible. Of course this is always a balancing act between building relationships with the clients that you are in a country to visit, the demands of the office back home or clients in other countries who also need things whilst you’re travelling and your personal need for sleep, exercise et cetera.
Best case, you also shouldn’t be looking at a screen of any kind directly before going to sleep. That isn’t always easy to arrange but it should be something for you to aim for as far as possible.
I would say that being able to get good sleep is probably the most important single factor to being able to sustain intensive business travel over a long period of time and is certainly essential if you want to stay healthy on business trips.
The second pillar of good health if you are travelling on behalf of the company is to watch what you eat and drink. It’s all too easy especially at the beginning of your career to fall into the mentality (perhaps justified when you’re on holiday) where you look at everything from a fantastic breakfast buffet in a hotel through to a multi-course dinner with clients late in the evening and think how wonderful this is. That attitude can quickly lead to you not only putting on weight but just generally feeling meh as you are perhaps not eating as healthily as you might do at home. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t enjoy the wonderful foodie opportunities that come your way, but you should avoid continually overeating just because you’re eating in restaurants all the time.
My recommendation would rather be that of course you should sample and enjoy the specialities that the country or the region that you are visiting has to offer, but you shouldn’t overdo things. One way to avoid doing that is to ensure that you really stick with a routine. So for example if you stick as closely as possible to a healthy eating routine but you try a lot of foods which you are offered. You can take small portions of things especially if you’re in regions like the eastern Mediterranean where meze are often served on the table or in Asia where dishes are often placed communally in the middle of the table. This style of communal eating allows you to eat more slowly and to be careful about intentionally consuming your nutrients, whilst trying lots of new things.
It can be really hard when you’re travelling for business especially as you will always be faced firstly with things that are truly delicious and secondly probably with hospitable people who will say to you, “you’re only here occasionally and therefore you have to try this desert/ special meal /special drink or whatever” and this can really lead to over consumption. In turn that can result in you having a bad night’s sleep and not feeling ready to do exercise at any point during your day.
Of course you don’t want to refuse food which is offered to you by clients as this can be perceived as extremely rude and be a barrier to doing business. However you should set clear plans for yourself as to how you really want to fuel your body whilst travelling and concentrate on ensuring that you get a quantity of lean protein and lots of fruit and vegetables in order to make sure that you stay alert and are as effective in your meetings as you can be.
Pick the occasions when it’s worth you going all out and eating everything amazing that comes on the table & don’t eat more than you need at other times.
Remember that willpower is a resource that you use up (also like your decision making ability) so it’s worthwhile giving some thought to which good nutrition habits you want to maintain whilst travelling, to also help you when you feel you need to resist something that would be “just too much”. You can read more about willpower and building habits here.
Boring advice I know, but you don’t want to have food poisoning on a trip. Use your judgement about when it’s ok to eat salads, seafood, offal or rare steaks. The only time I had something that made me sick (due to it being poor quality) was an ice-cream 10 minutes before I got on a plane to Chengdu from the Jiuzhaigou airport… but I know many people have a less accepting stomach than I do.
Also if you are intolerant to anything, or have food allergies, make sure you carry medication if applicable & think about learning how to say “I’m allergic to …” in whatever language. It can (literally) be a life saver & believe me it’s miserable to have a reaction to something on a trip. (Not the mention the guilt that your business partner will feel for having “poisoned you”.
It can be really hard on business trips to ensure that you drink enough water. The temptation is to perhaps switch to drinking a lot more coffee than you usually would do. This of course will also affect sleep quality. We forget that for many of us a business trip means a lot of time in aeroplanes and a lot more time than usual in air-conditioned rooms, which tend to dry out our bodies and leave us prone to headaches if we are not intentional about our liquid intake.
It’s also extremely easy when you are eating two or even three times a day with clients to fall into the habit of consuming a lot of calories in the form of drinks, simply because in many countries there is not such a habit of consuming large quantities of water.
This isn’t a problem of course if you just have a one off business trip of three or four days, but if this is your reality for 150 days of the year then it can soon become a problem both in terms of the amount of calories that you’ve consumed & potentially the sugar inside. There’s also the fact that you simply won’t feel as well or as alert as if you were drinking consuming a more healthy option.
I’ve seen a number of frequent business travellers end up with kidney stones, & believe me that looks REALLY painful. And you certainly don’t want to need a hospital whilst you’re away from home.
Take great care that when you are on an aeroplane that you drink as much water as possible and stay away from caffeinated drinks of all kinds and especially alcohol in planes as this will also dehydrate you. I like to always take a water bottle or what could also be described as a water flask so that it could also be filled with tea if I wanted it (or with hot water). This allows me to often fill up on the go and have have a better supply of water then if I was purely reliant on a small cup of water or one small drink which might be provided on a train or in an aeroplane. I’ve also made the observation that many customers during meetings will offer you a lot of coffee but they don’t necessarily realise that you might be looking for a lot of water or some alternative at least to coffee to stay hydrated and alert throughout the day.
Traditionally speaking, alcohol has always been used to “grease the wheels” in business dealings. Consequently, it might not be possible for you to avoid alcohol completely during business trips and nobody is saying that you have to. You should at least be aware though firstly that alcohol dehydrates the body so drinking alcohol on planes is a contributing factor for jetlag and secondly, you have to always consider whether you can consume that amount of alcohol and still be alert and ready to do good business the following day.
These health considerations have to be balanced against the expectations of your client and of course this depends on the culture that you’re working in. In my experience it’s often been easier to say “no, I don’t drink at all” than it is to drink a small amount and then stop when I’ve had enough by my standards. This is obviously something which is an extremely personal decision, but having seen various colleagues have bad “mornings after” & have to run meetings or get on planes, I’d say it’s not worth it.
For myself I’ve always made sure that I’m not going to be drinking too much in front of customers. Even though there are cultures where this is regarded as the highest sign of trust and relationship building (admittedly it’s easier for me as a woman to do this). In many areas though this kind of relationship building through alcohol is starting to be regarded as an old-fashioned tradition which is starting to die out or at least be reduced.
The third major pillar if you are going to stay healthy on business trips is building exercise into your day. Obviously each individual has certain habits that they are used to from home so if you are somebody who never exercises then you’re not going to suddenly become a gym rat just because you have a lot of business trips! However, if you don’t exercise at all and you have a lifestyle with a large number of business trips, chances are that the cumulative effect over the years is going to be negative both in terms of weight gained, mobility and your general health and well-being. Consequently, my strong recommendation would be that you find a way to exercise on business trips that suits your habits and preferences.
You can’t always pick your hotel yourself, especially if you’re working with the kind of partners who will organise the hotel for you. That means that you don’t necessarily (especially in the beginning) have control over whether a hotel has a gym or swimming pool – factors such as proximity to the office or along the commute of someone who will be picking you up may factor more strongly in the choice.
What are your options?
Personally, I always have swimming gear in my suitcase for business trips and usually also a swimming hat and a pair of goggles because in many countries they won’t let you into the water if you don’t wear a hat in the pool. ? Apparently a pair of swimming trunks is often required for men, as not all pools let you in with swimming shorts either. However many hotels don’t have a pool so I would also always have at the very least a pair of trainers and probably a pair of gym shorts that could be worn with a used T-shirt that I travelled in or something like this to visit the gym.
If a hotel doesn’t have either of these, then you have a couple of options. One of them of course if you are a runner is that many hotels recommend running routes and they will give you a map and tell you where are safe areas that you can jog. Perhaps in a nearby park or around a nearby area of the city. Or you can simply go out for a long brisk walk. This has the added advantage that you see and explore a little bit of the city and perhaps see more of daily life there than you otherwise would do where you’re confined to the routine of hotel-office-restaurant-hotel.
Even so, these options are not always possible in each city. Perhaps you don’t want to leave the hotel on your own as you don’t feel safe, or your hotel is simply next to a highway where it’s really not practical for you to step outside the hotel door and to start running. There are cities in the world such as Beirut where it’s just not always geared up for pedestrian traffic of any kind. Or of course, the air quality might just be horrible or the weather totally grim.
In this case, my recommendation would be that you do some bodyweight exercises in your room. There are many options you can use for this. I usually have a TheraBand in my suitcase: it takes up practically no space & weighs very little. Or there’s also the possibility of doing short high impact interval training (HIIT) sessions with an app such as 7 which gives you 10 – 15 minutes workouts that you can do with just bodyweight in your room. Here, I would really recommend though that if you are doing exercises in your room you put a towel down on the carpet as hotel carpets tend to be really rather grimy and not very hygienic at all.
If your room is not on the 90th floor or so you can also consider taking the stairs to & from your room.
The best kind of exercise is the one you actually do
Basically the question of exercise is a question of setting priorities.
If you want to build exercise into your business trip routine then you have to consider when you’re going to do this.
One practical option is to walk as much as you can for example at airports (believe me, you can do km in this way!) or take the stairs for a few floors in your hotel.
If you travel regularly to a certain destination then you probably know how an average working day in the office with that particular client will look and you can work out from there where the gaps are into which you can build an hour for exercise.
Or perhaps you can you know that you can only build in half an hour and therefore a 15 minute workout with some additional exercises tagged on the end could be the best opportunity you have in order to energise yourself through movement.
For example for me in the past if I visited Cyprus, I knew that I would probably have a couple of hours between the end of the working day and going out for dinner with the partner where I had time to exercise and catch up on some phone calls.
On the other hand in Shanghai I knew that if I wanted to exercise then the only timeframe available to me (that I could be sure of) was before breakfast and so I rearranged my routine in order to take advantage of that time and to ensure that I started my day feeling as if I was ready to be productive.
Whatever kind of exercise you do, it pays to be intentional in planning where you will build it into your day. In the end though, the most important thing is that you MOVE.
Setting Healthy Boundaries is a key to Self Care for Business Travellers
As you can see from the points above which form the main pillars of staying healthy on business trips, one of the main factors is you have to take the time for yourself in order to ensure that you are fit to do your job as an international traveller for the long term and not just for a couple of months.
Travelling internationally especially when you travel across more than a couple of time zones puts strain on your relationship with the office because the times that you are available for discussions or to answer questions don’t necessarily overlap with their working time. So it becomes more difficult to solve any issues which may come up.
You can work until late in the night if you come home from a client dinner and in your home time zone it’s still office hours. Of course if you need to make urgent phone calls then this is the time to do it. However it’s all too easy to fall into the trap of working 20 hour days when on business trips and thinking “oh I’ll sleep when I get home”. That’s okay when you start out doing the job but if you wish to sustain a high pace of travel over a number of years then realistically speaking you have to find a way of setting healthy boundaries or you will burn out.
Even though a business trip doesn’t constitute any kind of work/life balance
I’m not saying that after an eight hour day in the office that you down tools and don’t think any more about the company or their demands on your time, as probably you also might be involved in evening activities with your client or you might still be after eight hours in a meeting that could go on for another two or three (maybe more) hours however you should try to have a healthy balance.
No client wants to have meetings with you when you are half dead due to a lack of sleep the next day, because it’s also in their interest to make sure that your work is as efficient as possible. It’s not only expensive for your company when you visit a foreign partner, it’s also expensive for the partner who has to dedicate the time to discuss with you. Depending on the expectations of hosts in his or her country they will also be sacrificing their evenings or free time in order to go for meals or potentially to show you around the city. Therefore you are obligated to them to make sure that you set healthy boundaries around your work and that you get enough sleep (and that you eat in a way which fuels your body so that you can run an effective meeting with them during the full course of your business trip.)
The information that comes out of business meetings is paid for by your company so it’s actually your obligation to make sure you’re fit enough to do your best job in meetings, which means getting enough sleep.
This is at least for me probably the hardest thing to really truly achieve on a busy, long business trip. For example if you are travelling for 3 1/2 weeks away from home then it’s extremely easy to work all day every day. Or too have no days at all with a full rest because in the time which is not spent client facing, then you have so many reports and so many emails to write that you can easily spend all of your time simply working for the company or in transit between one client and the next.
Also with a view to getting a good nights sleep and being able to get up to do exercise (or urgent work) in the morning, it’s better if you can take half an hour before going to bed to switch off and to relax. The question of what you do with that relaxation or how you relax this is a very individual topic. Maybe you want to:
- watch a little bit of TV
- perhaps you want to FaceTime your family or talk to a friend
- or perhaps you don’t want to talk to anybody as you will have been talking and listening all day so music is the answer
- maybe you just want to lie in the bath and read a book.
All of these are perfectly reasonable ways to calm down and to ensure that you are also taking care of your blood pressure whilst you are travelling. It sounds like a small point but the cumulative effect of many years with high levels of travelling and not taking the time to relax can be extremely negative.
Believe me, nobody wants to have the kind of sales manager who actually is so unfit, overweight and stressed that the company is worrying that they are a heart attack waiting to happen whenever they step out of the office door. I know of several cases where international sales managers have died (due to “civilisation diseases”) whilst overseas & it’s truly a nightmare for all concerned.
When talking about relaxation, one of the things that can help you is having small luxuries at hand that help you to feel at home. That might be taking a nice pillowcase with you so that you always lie on something which is really to your taste, it might mean that you have a favourite bathrobe, pyjamas or eye mask, or that you take your favourite tea, coffee or snacks with you when travelling.
Whatever helps you to feel that you can relax it’s worth sacrificing a little bit of space in the suitcase in order to have something that feels a little bit like luxury. You don’t even need to carry something with you, you could just go get a massage or do something that energises you.
I have a friend who always will take some special candles when they travel for work, and one other friend of mine who always will take her travel tea set and some good quality tea so that she can be sure that she can enjoy a good tea whilst she is out of the office.
Routines are Essential for Healthy Business Travel
As you can see from most of what I’ve written above, many of the points that I’ve spoken about are questions where if you set a routine then it makes your life on business trips much easier. Having an intentional plan in place will help you to achieve at least some of the points I’ve made in any given day.
Some of my friends have observed that they find it very hard because to concentrate on doing work additional to the client meetings when they are travelling, simply because they are so completely outside of their normal home routine. For me, the solution to this has always been to be very clear to myself that my business trip routine is a completely different one to any routine that I might have at home.
Over the years I developed a routine which was even differentiated by the location. eg some regions of the world tend to start business meetings rather early in the morning but might go for dinner at 6 pm, whereas other regions would start a business meeting perhaps only at 10 go on until six and then dinner could be from nine onwards. So it’s important to think about what works for you in terms of:
- when will I build exercise into my day?
- are there ways in which I can make sure that I always have a healthy breakfast to fuel my start into the day? (I tend to eat almost the same breakfast with slight variations when I’m travelling, so it’s a little bit more luxurious than I would have at home because it includes eggs but it’s not like I’m eating cake. I’m not eating enough calories to to fuel me through the whole day (because I know that I’ll be expected to eat with clients probably)
- when will you do your emails and reports?
- when will you go to bed?
- when will you get up in the morning?
- under which circumstances will you allow yourself to miss exercise and sleep a little longer? I would suggest that you make a kind of deal with yourself on this topic so that you don’t always just sleep longer, but you say okay if I don’t have the opportunity to sleep for more than for example 6 hours, then I can skip exercise before breakfast tomorrow morning and take the extra hour to sleep
- when do you plan to stop working in an evening?
These are all important factors, that if you want to use your time productively on a business trip but at the same time you want to ensure that you can stay healthy and avoid burning out in the long term then you need to at least think about these points.
I know you can’t control all of them on any given day, but you should at least be intentional about nutrition, rest & exercise (that may mean deciding for yourself, that if you don’t arrive back in the hotel before x time, then you won’t do any more work on the computer that evening etc).
If you want to stay healthy on business trips, it’s a marathon not a sprint
However well you manage your business trips, prolonged repeated international travel is exhausting, so you need to develop good habits to help you sustain the pace. “Self care for business travellers” sounds perhaps a bit like those trips are not work, but it’s quite the opposite in fact. If you don’t actively pursue good habits & a self-care regime (however that may look for you), there will come a time when you just can’t continue.
Being self-disciplined about how you organise what you CAN control of your time when travelling for work isn’t easy, but it makes a big contribution to you staying healthy on business trips.
You can live healthily whilst travelling and still enjoy all that a country has to offer in the way of gorgeous food, but you need to plan a little bit.
When you know your partners better, it’s easier to explain that you perhaps don’t want to eat a certain style of food, or that you need to prioritise exercise in order to work at your best, or that you don’t want to go to karaoke until 3am because you need your beauty sleep. It’s not always practical to say that on a first meeting though, when you may have to “suffer” a little in some ways ?.
In the end though, as with any other kind of habits, an occasional day “off” or “cheat day” isn’t going to destroy your health, but if you plan on many years of healthy business travel, then you need to take care of the points above, to be in it for the long term.
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