If your job requires frequent trips to the airport, then you already know what two professors in Europe have recently demonstrated about business travel: It's not as sexy as it seems to outsiders. In fact, there's an unhealthy dark side. 

The academic research, summarized earlier this week in The Economist, takes a deep dive into that dark side. Here's a brief list of how you may be hurting yourself while flying the friendly skies: 

1. Disorientation.

This is the geographical and cultural displacement you feel when you've been in numerous places and time zones in a short period of time. "The demand to effectively operate in unfamiliar environments and navigate cultural differences can be an intensive one, particularly when business travel requires meeting rigid schedules," write professors Scott A. Cohen of the University of Surrey in the UK and Stefan Gössling of Linnaeus University in Sweden.

Plus, the small routines of your home life--the ones that normally relax and orient you, like your exercise and coffee habits--are often on hold while you're on the road. Even the act of figuring out what time it is requires a modicum of extra thought. 

2. Pre-trip anxiety. 

It's easy to feel nervous "even before movement begins, through the stress of anticipating, organizing and preparing for a trip," note Cohen and Gössling. 

Even in an era of mobile technology, travelers must tie up loose ends at the job and at home before leaving town. It's one thing when this stress precedes a vacation. But when it precedes business travel, you pay a psychological toll, because "time spent traveling will rarely be offset through a reduced workload," the professors observe.

In other words, work continues to pile on your desk while you're gone, as if you're still there.  

3. The stress of travel itself. 

When you're at home, severe weather patterns might change what you wear to work, or how you get there. When you're traveling, severe weather becomes a source of severe stress, with the potential to delay or imperil flights. 

And even when the weather is pristine, the airport is stressful. It's difficult to relax when you're going through security checks, and when you're exposed endlessly to "breaking news" on the ubiquitous television monitors.

4. Loneliness.

Isolation is a common experience for business travelers. Not only are you taking the trip alone, but you're often leaving behind your emotional support system of family and friends and coworkers.

5. Family and relationship problems. 

Frequent travelers often confront emotional and psychological strains in their relationships, since they spend so much time away from their spouses or partners. And when you miss occasions like birthdays and performances, you exacerbate bitter feelings of non-involvement, both from the traveler and from those who remain at home, shouldering the domestic commitments. 

You can also feel like an absentee parent. "Frequent female business travelers and mothers... applied considerable pressure on themselves, and perceived pressure from their partners and others, to also fulfill the role of mother when away," write Cohen and Gössling.

6. Mental illness. 

The professors cite a study of 10,000 World Bank employees, which found that the business travelers on the staff--roughly 40 percent of the group--were three times as likely to file psychological insurance claims.

7. The stress of recovery.

When you're on the road frequently, you ideally want your precious few stints at home to include quality time with your family. But this can't always happen, since "the limited time in between trips [is] largely spent recovering from fatigue," note the professors. 

8. The erosion of community. 

For a community to feel like one, you have to spend time in it. When you're constantly on the road, you simply can't make the attendance commitments necessary for enjoying the fun of local cultural activities or team sports. 

This is especially true given the strain travelers feel to make up for lost time with family. Several researchers noted that "frequent business travelers tended to sacrifice local collective activities and instead prioritize their immediate families when returning from trips." 

It's hard to fault any frequent traveler for prioritizing family over acquaintances. But over time, this too exacts a psychological toll, resulting in the loss of local social networks and the comfort that comes from seeing familiar faces on hometown streets. 

9. Jet lag. 

Surely you're familiar with how jet lag can affect your patterns of sleep--not to mention your digestion--for up to two weeks after you travel.  

What you may not know is that jet lag has potential long-term implications. By interfering with the body's rhythms, jet lag can speed up your aging process, weaken your immune system, and impair your memory. 

10. Diseases and discomforts. 

This laundry list of in-flight ailments includes dry eyes, dehydrated skin, and exposure to germs. But wait, there's more. "One in 10 travelers on long-haul flights develop symptomless deep-vein thrombosis, from which there is the potential to develop fatal blood clots," write Cohen and Gössling.

Even darker, they note, flying 85,000 miles a year exceeds the regulatory limit for public exposure to radiation. (What constitutes 85,000 miles? Flying round-trip between New York and Tokyo seven times, or between New York and Seattle 17 times.) 

Is there a silver lining here? Yes, and it's summed up nicely in the Economist. Severe as these problems are, they tend to affect the affluent portions of the population, with access to healthcare and the incomes to afford it. That doesn't minimize the problems, per se. But if you ever feel jealous about someone's life of travel, just remember that there's a dark side to their journeys, one whose worst effects often remain hidden, even from them.

Published on: Aug 21, 2015