for release June 29, 2001
by Melodie Davis
When Your Work Takes You Away
A group of four from my office were heading out for the weekend, to a meeting in Chicago that would last through Sunday. Some weekend.
We struck up conversation with a family of four on the adjacent seats. They happened to be Japanese. The father happily explained that he was taking his family to Chicago for his mother's 65th birthday on Sunday.
He expressed surprise that we were heading out for a weekend of work. "And we work for the church," I said, the irony evident, then added to myself, and "I thought the Japanese were supposed to be such workaholics."
Yet here they were, celebrating a family milestone together, while the four of us Caucasians were heading away from our families for the weekend. Was there something wrong with this picture? (One thing wrong is airline rates that force budget-minded church agencies to hold meetings on Sundays to get the cheapest airfare.)
I usually enjoy travel but always with a mixture of guilt for the family I'm leaving behind. In a recent article in the Washington Post, staff writer Cindy Loose talked about the mixture of guilt and pleasure she experienced in work-related travel. Guilt, sorrow and worry in leaving your family are mixed with the joys of not fixing meals; reading your own, grown-up bedtime story book; and having only one person to worry about getting ready in the morning. As a mother, business travel is a vacation from my other full time job-of being a homemaker and parent.
Cindy talks about how few studies there are on the effects of business travel on families. The World Bank, which frequently sends its employees on long overseas jaunts to third world countries, (a quarter million days last year) studied the health claims of its employees who travel versus the claims of those who don't. Frequent travelers had more medical needs, and also three times the number of stress related problems compared to their non-traveling co-workers. This was a limited study, and Bernhard H. Liese, senior adviser in World Bank's development office notes, "The psycho-social dimensions of modern business travel is a largely uncharted field."
However, anecdotal evidence of the effects-stories from parents-are in good supply. These range from a daughter of a frequent flyer who asked her mom, "Who is my Daddy?" to the normal experience of finally reaching home, only to have a child be unruly and obnoxious for the next three days. As Cindy says, "Prepare to face your child's anger when you return." She quotes Nancy Colette, a psychologist who says, "The typical response is 'Thank goodness you're home, how dare you leave me?'"
So what to do? Cindy has a number of good suggestions:
1. For smaller children, leave taped bedtime stories, so you can still enjoy your bedtime ritual.
2. Call at least every day. I try to call home when they are fixing dinner, because there is always a question of how long to cook the beans or where the hot dog buns are. Company policies on calls home may be stingy, but a few dollars on phone calls is a very good investment in family life; e-mails, if you have a laptop, also mean a lot.
3. Plan special outings, play dates or activities for those left at home. Cindy and her husband had planned to get a beanbag chair for their daughter's birthday. They decided to have the husband and daughter shop for it -- which turned out to be hard to find and gave them several evening outings of an enjoyable thing to do.
4. Relax your notions of a well-rounded meal for the family at home: when one parent is gone, meals at home frequently become more child-oriented: a pot of box macaroni-cheese is a simple supper and not all that bad nutritionally.
5. One frequent traveler colleague got a cell phone just so his children could know they could get in touch with him any time they wanted. I thought, wow, what a comfort to the children. They are old enough not to abuse the privilege, but to know that even though Dad is far away, he is as close as the phone in his pocket and he will immediately answer.
Business travel means extra stress on families at home, and psychological stress (guilt) for the traveler. It means paying more attention to family needs, but can be managed as long as all understand that it is just part of the job. Smart companies pay attention to these extra stresses placed on all.
For a free booklet, "Struggling to Balance Work and Family," write to
Melodie Davis, Another Way c/o Name\Address of YOUR newspaper; or e-mail: Melodie@mennomedia.org.
You can also visit Another Way on the Web at www.thirdway.com.
Melodie Davis is the author of seven books and has written her column since 1987. She taught feature writing and has won awards from a number of organizations including the National Federation of Press Women, Virginia Press Women and the American Advertising Association. She and her husband have three growing daughters.
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