Monday, 5 August 2019

The downsides of globe-trotting

“Wow, it must be awesome to get to so many cool places for work!”

Most of my colleagues will be familiar with this refrain from friends, family and others who hear about our globe-trotting antics. It is, in many ways, a unique privilege to be able to travel so often. Unlike other business travellers, academics, especially those doing fieldwork, often travel off of the beaten track, venturing beyond the usual tourist and commercial hubs. They frequently have the opportunity to spend extended periods in a new place, allowing free time to explore a destination in depth and to interact with local people in ways that other travellers might not. It’s also a privilege in terms of having these experiences covered by the tax-payer (although it should be noted that many trips are funded from charitable and other private funds). I’ve been fortunate enough to travel all over the world to further my work on dinosaurs and this has allowed me to push my research programme forwards (both personally and through close collaborations), and enabled me to experience amazing places, sites with both cultural and natural wonders, which I would never have seen otherwise. It has also had the benefit of fostering close friendships with international colleagues who, although rarely seen in person, have remained good friends for life.

Travel is an essential part of my work – dinosaur fossils are found from Alaska to Antarctica and are large, fragile, difficult to transport, financially valuable, politically sensitive, and often known from examples found in a single location. Hence, travelling to other museum collections is essential in order to check and re-check the raw anatomical data on which the subject is based. Although digitization holds the promise of delivering virtual libraries of this material, which will reduce the need for future travel, this goal still lies years into the future, due to the time and money needed to carry out this work. Moreover, finding novel specimens requires fieldwork, going to the source, which often involves finding new or poorly explored places with the potential to yield useful material. In addition to these research requirements, academics frequently travel to conferences in order to share information, network and advance collaborative work. Finally, we are also expected to travel for more ‘corporate’ reasons, relating to institutional reputation, training, corporate partnerships, etc.

Although the pros of work-related travel are obvious in terms of its direct and indirect benefits, there are numerous cons, which have to be weighed against the more obvious gains of international travel. These might not be obvious in some cases, and others might be dismissed as whinging, but many of these can have significant impacts on travellers. As I’ve had a couple of years with frequent long-haul trips, for a variety of reasons, this seems like a good time to reflect on some of the cons. The following is from a personal perspective but would apply equally to many of my friends and colleagues.

1. Life at home. In order to maximise work time while away, it’s often necessary to do long-haul flights at weekends, so that you can arrive alert enough to make the most of the working week (after all, the colleagues you’re visiting will reasonably want to work their regular hours and can’t be expected to work late or at weekends just to accommodate you). However, this means giving up your own free time to enable you to work more effectively. In addition, you can’t usually pop back for a weekend if on an extended trip. For example, my recent two-week trip to Argentina ate into three weekends (two dedicated to travel, one mid-trip). Over the past two years, I’ve sacrificed around 25% of my weekends to work-related travel, while either in transit or during the body of a trip. That’s 25% of my opportunities to hang out with my partner, family and friends, to indulge in my own interests, or to catch up on domestic chores (amazingly, academics try to have lives outside of work too), as well as the weekdays I’m away too. I don’t receive any compensation for the personal time I routinely give up to make my work trips more effective, either financially or in terms of time off in lieu. There’s just an assumption that this is how it works. Luckily, my partner is supportive and understanding of my obligation to travel – and it is an obligation, as it directly impacts the goals set by my bosses – and I don’t have kids or pets to pine for, but it can still be frustrating and wearing, and sometimes lead to straining of relationships as well as extended periods away from home.

2. Life at work. Work trips are planned to engage in activities that can be done only in the place that you’re travelling to, whether that is because you’re looking at unique material, doing fieldwork or meeting with colleagues. Nevertheless, the fact that you are working elsewhere does not mean that your work obligations back home decrease or that you're on some kind of vacation. While travelling you are frequently expected to meet deadlines, answer queries and manage teams, who might be in very different time zones and have issues with varied levels of complexity and priority. In some cases, it is vital to deal with urgent issues arising, but even at its most reasonable this requirement makes every working day longer, as early mornings or evenings are used to continue working ‘back home’ while you are already working full-time during the day. In some cases, these requests can be ignored, but a constant stream of emails starting with “I know you’re away, but …” for day-to-day, low priority issues adds psychological burden. Moreover, anything that can’t be dealt with while travelling builds up throughout this period, so that a small mountain of work usually awaits your return. It can take several days, or even weeks, to get back into a regular routine after such a trip.

3. Mental health. Although work travel is professionally enriching and is often fun, it can take a severe toll on mental health and well-being. Extended time away from home puts strain on individuals and relationships, as well as intruding on a multitude of other personal issues. Moreover, the act of travelling itself can be stressful, for many reasons, such as the frustrations and setbacks caused by trip logistics, not only when things go wrong (delays, changes of plan, mistakes made) but also when things go right (airports and train stations are not relaxing environments). There is the need to adapt to an unfamiliar place, where the culture and language may be very different, which adds more complexity to accomplishing even the most minor of tasks. For example, finding out how to take the right bus, get lunch or find laundry can become daunting or overly time-consuming in some circumstances. In addition, there is pressure on every trip to deliver on those work-related goals: if these aren’t accomplished this adds other types of stress, associated with frustration, failure and negative judgements from bosses and funders. Fieldwork applies yet another layer to this, in terms of working in potentially hazardous environments while carrying out procedures that can be dangerous. Taking responsibility for the safety, logistics and behaviour of others on such trips heaps yet another burden on fieldwork leaders. Finally, but perhaps most importantly, many research trips are conducted alone. Loneliness can become a big source of stress, especially when things start to go wrong. On returning, it's often assumed that you must have had an excellent time while away, and it can be hard to admit that you were miserable the entire time.

4. Physical health. Any form of travelling increases risks to physical health. These range from the trivial, like catching the coughs and colds that ricochet around airplanes and conference venues, through to severe illness or injury. Travelling can be very uncomfortable, as anyone over a certain height or weight will tell you as they squeeze into an economy seat for a 12-hour flight. During my travels, I’ve suffered a variety of ailments including: falls and minor injuries during fieldwork; innumerable stomach bugs; delirium and fever; days of mind-numbing tiredness due to jet-lag; numerous cricked backs and necks from hours of uncomfortable travel; and a ruptured spleen (caused by falling awkwardly on a crowded plane). Although we can obviously take leave to get over illnesses and injuries once back home, things like discomfort and jet-lag are not taken into account, meaning that recovery from extended journeys can take much longer than it should. Moreover, it's often very difficult to eat healthily while travelling, due to the lack oif fridges and cooking equipment, and it's usually difficult to maintain regular exercise routines. Again, this might sound trivial, but two weeks of eating out with no access to a gym can really leave you feeling rough and have you piling on the pounds.

5. Financial cost. I’ve sometimes paid out of my own pocket to attend a conference or visit a museum – funds are not always available for all of the work that we want to do. However, even when funds are provided there’s usually at least some personal financial cost involved. For obvious reasons, institutions reimburse you for expenditure you can prove – but you can’t always get receipts for everything. This is particularly challenging for small purchases like public transport costs, breakfasts and lunches, where small establishments might not offer receipts (this is particularly common in more remote areas). This might not sound like a big deal, as we’d be spending our own money on such things back at home, but consider that: 1) we’re spending our own money to facilitate work; and 2) it might cost us more to do things like eat breakfast out than when we cater for ourselves at home. Moreover, and for understandable reasons, all of our work travel is done as economically as possible, to make the most of the resources available (and to avoid accusations of largesse at public expense). However, if you want to travel more comfortably, this has to come out of your own resources – for example, on long-haul flights I often pay to upgrade, as I find economy seats too uncomfortable and impossible to sleep or work in (I literally can’t open a laptop or sleep when in an economy seat). Upgrading makes me more effective on arrival, allows me to recover faster on my return and enables me to make better use of what is technically work time while I’m trapped inside a metal tube, in addition to providing me with a more comfortable experience. However, every time I do this I’m using my own resources to subsidise my employer, so that I can work more effectively on their behalf. Finally, currency exchange rates can fluctuate markedly during the course of a project (or even during the course of a trip) meaning that grants might fall short of what’s needed (forcing you to top them up to make them work). It can also mean that you can lose out if your expenses are reimbursed at poorer rates than those at which they were incurred. (Incidentally, I’m also subsidising my employer by using my own equipment, such as field tools, field clothing, laptops and cameras, on these trips).

So, in summary, although I’ve enjoyed an awful lot of my work travel, most of this enjoyment is, to a least some extent, qualified by all of the above. And, frankly, I’ve detested some of the trips I’ve needed to make as they were stressful, unpleasant and unproductive (and the ruptured spleen put me out of action for several months).

More positively, there are numerous strategies that can be put in place to deal with many of these issues, although their effectiveness and applicability will vary from person to person. Perhaps the simplest thing is to make sure your travel is well planned. Budget the time you need (neither too much nor too little) and try and make your trip as efficient as possible by extracting the most use out of the time as you can. Research your destination in advance to find out how to get started there, the basics of getting around, the kinds of everyday things you might need to take, and the range of things to do there that can help keep you occupied outside of work. Seek advice from others doing similar trips and see if you can buddy up with fellow travellers to share the experience, as sharing the positives and negatives of travel can be mutually beneficial. If travelling alone get out of the hotel and look around if possible, otherwise make sure you have plenty of entertainment or ways of staying in touch with home during those long solitary evenings and weekends. Take pressure off of your work load back at home by making it clear that you’re unavailable and by delegating tasks if you can: let colleagues know that you can’t be expected to double-up on your regular work load while away. Finally, you should approach your institutions for support, if needed, in terms of trying to strike a better work/life balance or finding strategies that make travel more comfortable while enhancing its effectiveness. Seeing the world as you do your job is definitely a privilege, but it’s also something that should not have a negative impact on your life out of work.