I’ve been sitting here, inside an airport lounge in Dubai, for about an hour and a half now. Trying to rack my deeply fatigued brain on how to outlay this story without sounding like a complaining, ungrateful brat. What I have figured out is that I have spent close to 50 hours in this very lounge in the last five months. That’s significantly less than I’ve spent with my loved ones, and a whole lot more than I’ve slept, let alone exercised. The truth is this: When I pitched this story to my editor here at Future Women months ago, I didn’t really take into consideration the impact being part of this freelance flyers club might have on my mental health. There’s two reasons for this. Firstly, nobody warned me and secondly, who could I even talk to about it?
The unfiltered truth of living a jetset lifestyle is less than glamorous. At the time of Anthony Bourdain’s death, it was estimated that he had spent more than 250 days of the year travelling. A factor that may well have impacted his depression and exhaustion. I’m not speculating on what kind of help he could have sought, but I can relate. Frequent flyers are more likely to be at risk of mental health illnesses, including loneliness, isolation and depression – which, according to statistics, are on the rise among young professionals. Then there’s jet lag itself, which is linked to memory impairment, disorientation, a compromised immune system and even heart disease. And if that’s not enough to put you off, frequent flyers age faster and are exposed to more radiation than our grounded counterparts.
I’m certainly no Bourdain. At this point, I’m sitting at around 184 days and I’m not even the most well-travelled business person I know, nor am I a true digital nomad – I have a home, I pay rent. But, I also haven’t spent more than 30 days in a row at that home in over two years. So by now, despite adrenal fatigue and constant disorientation, I have a system, albeit a rudimentary one.
On a press trip recently, I met a fellow journalist, Jackie – a digital nomad of three years. Instead of a home, she has a suitcase and a storage container in Los Angeles. Jackie admitted she was in a bit of a dark place because of her lifestyle. “I don’t have romantic relationships,” she confessed, admitting that like me, her lovers were scattered over time zones. “I don’t have many friends left who understand what it’s like. I mean, I wake up confused where I am and have been experiencing night terrors. I’ve never had that before and no one gets what that’s like.
“But, this is the life I’ve chosen and I should feel blessed… so I just move on and try to let wherever I am distract me.” A band-aid solution many of those suffering mood disorders and mental health issues implement. But this is also part of the shame many business travellers carry. How can you complain, when, on screen, you’ve got it all?
In his book Vagabonding, a bible to digital nomads, backpackers and wanderlust-filled travellers, travel writer Rolf Potts provides a motivational guide to taking in the glory of travel and seeking out experience. On the opening page, he quotes Walt Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road” – an uplifting sonnet on why we travel. Sure, it inspires, but also, fails to mention Whitman’s own stalk of the dark, black dog. It’s these images – the ones we see on the daily filling our feeds, from influencers paid to sit by Azure waters, to the business class passenger posting a well-curated picture of their complimentary Champagne and extra legroom (their passport and boarding pass angled just so) – that sell a lifestyle without a warning label that it could have dire results.
In 2015, a study on hypermobility looked at the juxtaposition between the perceived glamour of frequent flying – the cultural capital we accrue with our worldliness and social prestige, blatantly laid out on our social feed – and physiological, psychological, emotional and social costs of never being still. It concluded that “while aspects of glamourisation in regard to mobility are omnipresent in our lives, there exists an ominous silence with regard to its darker side”. The University of Surrey researchers even found that the cumulative effect of stress from preparing for a trip, combined with the impact jet lag can have on our circadian rhythms when we land, along with all the anxieties that come with any form of travel, can impact our mental health. That’s not to mention the stress of the relationships we leave at home.
Some companies have recognised the impact constant travel can have. Take Qantas, for example, which introduced guided meditation into its in-flight entertainment fold, so that flyers can tap out mid-flight. And many hotel groups now include in-room yoga and meditation or complimentary classes. For travellers, so much of ‘staying well’ comes down to an awareness of your own mental health, being smart about diet and exercise on the road, and being honest with your own body.
Though, hopefully, with the rise of social media call-out culture, those with influence are starting to tell the true story of what goes on behind the scenes of their perfectly-crafted travel shots. But, of course, this all ties into mental health in the workplace – being kind to your colleagues, calling for companies to provide more mental support, and realising that maybe, just maybe, travelling for work isn’t what it appears to be: a holiday.
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