It's a fact of modern working life that thousands of business people spend a lot of time in the air – for some, even more than behind their desks. Many see long-haul travel as a glamorous perk of the job, a fitting reward for years of hard slog. For others, globetrotting is an unwelcome distraction that leaves them forever battling fatigue at work.
Who are these frequent flyers? The finance professionals most represented include project managers, auditors, sales managers and consultants. They all have their individual stories – single, partnered, kids and no kids, but one thing unites them. As they repeatedly criss-cross time zones, the capacity to burn out is a very real possibility.
“The rule of thumb is that you need a day’s recovery for every time zone crossed, once you’ve crossed three or four of them,” says Dr Ian Cheng, an occupational medicine specialist and a committee member of the Australasian Society of Aviation Medicine. “Sydney to Hong Kong may not be such a big deal, but you could need several days to acclimatise after a flight to London or New York.”
One of his first warnings is to avoid stepping onto a long-haul flight with a sizeable sleep debt already hanging over your head. The good news is that with careful planning, the effects of jet lag can be minimised, Cheng says. The bad news is that there is no cure-all.
Melbourne-based “digital nomad” Sam Bell is a stickler for preparation. As a director of the suitably named social media agency Runway Digital, her work may involve attending a conference in California one day and performing a workshop in London the next.
“The first thing I do when I board a plane is change the time on my phone and computer to synchronise with the new destination,” the 39-year-old says.
“I’ve spoken to people who get into the time zone a week beforehand, but I move around too much for that.”
In the air, Bell drinks plenty of water and snacks on healthy treats from her personal stash. She avoids alcohol and caffeine. Alcohol may help put you to sleep, but the sleep itself will be of poor quality. When checking in for economy class she requests a seat in a block of four down the back, stretching out if spare seats become available.
Servicing clients in Australia, Asia and Europe, Bell has travelled business class but felt the extra leg room (and free pyjamas) didn’t justify the expense.
She sometimes uses airport lounges to recharge, quite literally. “Lounges are great for keeping your computer powered, but I don’t notice a big difference using them.”
Upon arrival Bell takes a brisk walk in the sunlight if possible, tidies up any work loose ends and sleeps only when night falls.
“It helps when you enjoy your job and the company of your clients,” she says. “I never book too many appointments and late-night dinners, and I also try not to go straight into a meeting after a flight as I perform better 24 hours later.”
Sometimes schedules don’t afford the business traveller such choices, especially in the case of a quick turnaround. Most eastern seaboard flights from Australia to London arrive in the morning, making it easier for visitors to conduct business before doubling back at day’s end.
The New York-bound may struggle with an itinerary that sees them landing in the evening when the body clock thinks it’s morning. In such cases, Cheng recommends darkening the hotel room in order for the body to produce melatonin, a sleep‑inducing hormone. “The external cues that can adjust your body clock are light, activity and meal times,” he says, adding that a 30-minute power nap the next day may also help.
Cheng believes that those best suited to travel are meticulous time managers.
Although Bell fits this description, her former life as a project manager and strategist at KPMG and Deloitte is more likely the reason she succeeds where others fail. “I’m probably used to working late through the night,” she says. “Sometimes I think my body’s trained itself for this.”
This article is from the October 2012 issue of INTHEBLACK magazine.