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Frequent fliers: Maintaining the health of your globally mobile workforce

Some of your staff work at head office, others at regional branches.

Some relocate to foreign countries to work in international offices, and some are globally mobile. Looking after the health and well-being of your domestic teams is hard enough, let alone working to ensure the success of those who have relocated — where 50% of expat assignments fail. [Source: 2016]

But what about your frequent fliers? What about your globally mobile workforce who travel around the world for business? There are set to be more and more of them…


This article explains the effects of frequent flying and international business travel and what individuals and companies can do to ensure their employees’ health doesn’t suffer. This article addresses both frequent fliers and those who undertake short-term assignments in foreign climes.

What are the effects of frequent business travel?

  • Faster ageing

o   Frequent flying can lead to chronic jet lag, which has been linked to disrupting gene expression that influences ageing and the immune system

  • Increased risk of heart attack or stroke
  • Increased risk of mental illness
  • Memory impairment
  • Exposure to high levels of radiation due to being at high altitudes frequently and for extended periods
  • Weaker immune system

o   Not only are all passengers breathing the same air and spreading germs, but frequent travel can switch off genes that are linked to the immune system

  • Higher risk of obesity

o   This comes from irregular eating, a lack of opportunities for exercise and increased alcohol intake.

  • Increased risk of mental health issues

o   Disruption of sleep patterns from jet lag can affect mood, judgment, and concentration for up to six days
o   There is also the stress of being away from familiar things and support networks, such as friends and family. Frequent travel can be isolating.


How much travel is too much travel?

One study that reflected the findings above explains how much travel you must do for health problems to occur.

“Our most robust findings were for heavy business travel 14 days or more of travel a month,” says Catherine Richards from the Hutchinson Institute for Cancer Outcomes Research and Department of Epidemiology of Columbia University. “When I say robust, I mean that there was a significant increasing trend for these health outcomes with increasing nights spent away from home.”

Direction of travel can impact health and well-being in different ways

Crossing multiple time zones can result in misery-inducing jetlag because it disrupts the body’s circadian rhythm — which determines sleep patterns. People may find the symptoms of jetlag amplified, resulting in:

  • Tiredness during working hours
  • Inability to sleep at night
  • Gastrointestinal disruption

Direction of travel also makes a difference. When you travel west, your body gains more time which your body naturally wants, while travelling east deprives your body of time, making it harder to adjust. It is reported, by This is Insider amongst others, that people travelling west are more prone to depressive mental health episodes, while travelling east may result in manic episodes.

  • Here are some tips for overcoming jetlag:
  • Get plenty of rest the night before you go
  • Book a daytime flight if possible
  • Get as much sleep as possible on night flights
  • Stay hydrated
  • Change your watch to the destination time zone during your flight and align your routine to local time on arrival
  • Go for a walk or undertake some light exercise on arrival
  • Consider moving your bedtime prior to your trip if you’re travelling east. Aim to go to bed 15 to 60 minutes earlier each night for three nights prior to travel
  • Get as much natural sunlight first thing in the mornings as possible.

What can frequent fliers do?

Maintain health while away

  • Work out in the hotel room. Build a short routine that can be done without equipment. For example: push-ups, sit-ups, wall sit, lunges and squats
  • Pack healthy snacks and packed lunches instead of relying on convenience food from airports.

Stay active while travelling

  • Stand or walk as much as possible at the airport
  • Avoid escalators and lifts
  • Go for a short walk while waiting for flights to take off
  • Maintain your fitness by working out in your room or running outside.

Alternative modes of transport

  • Shorter international trips between big cities are sometimes possible by train. For example: the Eurostar runs from London to Paris in under two hours.
  • If you have to fly, try to fly direct – stop-overs can contribute to exhaustion

Review meeting method

  • Nothing beats face-to-face, in-the-flesh meetings, especially with large groups and new people. But many people find themselves flying to meetings that could easily have been done using web-based video/telephone conferencing or even Skype.

What can companies do for their employees?

  • Provide employee education programmes on stress management and strategies to improve diet and activity while travelling
  • Offer reimbursement rates for food based on the quality of the food consumed: companies could reimburse high-energy-density food at a below-cost rate, and/or reimburse healthy meals at an above-cost rate
  • Book rooms in hotels that have gyms and swimming pools
  • Ensure your employees have access to virtual health services
  • Provide financial incentives to employees to exercise while traveling

Flying with medical conditions

Much of this article is designed to support people who are generally fit and well. However, for those managing an on-going condition (such cardiac conditions, deep vein thrombosis, respiratory diseases, pregnancy, ear nose and throat infections or post-surgical patients), certain airlines may require a medical certificate that indicates the person is ‘fit to fly’. Individuals can contact their doctor or medical insurance company for more information on their plan cover and the appropriate steps to take to help ensure the flight doesn’t pose a risk to their health.

As well as your frequent fliers, you may have staff on long-term and short-term assignments around the world. Aetna International can help you and your teams plan international assignments for the best health outcomes — an essential part of which is international Private Medical Insurance (iPMI). This could include support for both mental and physical health and wellness. Why not call us to discuss how we can help support you and your international teams?

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