On the road again ... and again and again
The rigors of work travel and its impacts on the family
By Jean Elliott, College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences
Making time for personal lives outside of work can be a daunting dance. The demands of everyday life seem to thrust us into a fast Zumba, and the quickened pace can take a toll on relationships. Add in stints of work-related travel and the delicate balance between family members can spin out of control with all of the comings and goings.
This tug-and-pull of departures and arrivals serves as a source of intrigue for Anisa Zvonkovic. Over the past 27 years, the chair of the Department of Human Development at Virginia Tech has studied close relationships and stress; specifically, how people navigate between their work and personal lives. A good way to study relationships is to look at relationships that have a lot of change in them. She has studied the lives of commercial fishermen, adoption agency workers, long-haul truck drivers, flight attendants, consultants, and Extension agents.
Zvonkovic's latest research focuses on the demands of work travel. A review of the literature in family studies reveals few details about this intersection of life, encompassing the mostly generic queries of "Do you travel for work or do you not?" or, at most, "How many nights are you gone?" Zvonkovic thought that how travel is configured, such as short trips versus long trips, would be important to understand. Her team analyzed travel intensity in families where a member was on the road at least 20 nights over the course of a year.
The sample and the methodology
Backed by a $1.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, this extensive multi-method project involved 100 families and included in-person interviews with all family members over the age of 8, qualitative analysis, self-report standardized surveys, and the completion of about a month of daily diaries via personal digital assistants (PDAs) by travelers, their partners, and each child participant.
In general, men are more likely than women to be engaged in occupations involving frequent work-related travel. The sample in Zvonkovic's study mirrors a larger data set that established that about two-thirds of travelers are male. The sample also includes a variety of jobs in different sectors of the economy including manufacturing, health care, technology, education, and nonprofits. The occupational class of the traveler spanned several categories: executive, administrative, professional, managerial, technical, sales, service, production, and repair.
"This project required a tremendous rapport and cooperation between the families and a team of graduate students," says Zvonkovic.
Teams of three or four researchers visited with families to provide information and training, visiting each household numerous times. Once in the home, a designated team leader provided a description of the project to the family before consent forms were signed. Then, family members were interviewed and audiotaped separately, which usually took 20 to 30 minutes for children and about an hour for adults. They were asked to answer open-ended questions about what it's like to travel or have a partner who traveled; adults also finished an adjective-intense exercise relating to job satisfaction. All members completed personality tests that measured such traits as agreeableness, introversion, and conscientiousness. The family was then reunited and oriented to the daily diaries and the PDAs.
The diaries, which contain a baseline of about 200 questions, were completed every night through at least two travel cycles. While that is a bit burdensome initially, Zvonkovic says that after a learning curve of three or four nights, the PDA diary takes only 15 to 20 minutes to complete.
To maintain a good working relationship with the families, the research team sent thank-you notes and holiday cards. Families also received quarterly newsletters that included hints for packing lightly, exercises to improve circulation when flying, or travel-related word-find games and puzzles for children. These newsletters served as both a recruiting mechanism and a way to keep tabs on forwarding addresses, if needed. Despite the daily demands that this study entailed, only one family dropped out. A couple that separated also had to withdraw. Each family member received $50 for participating in the study.
"I felt that how travel is configured makes a difference in how people and their families cope with it," says Zvonkovic. The research shows that it's not the total number of nights someone is gone, but the number of trips — the number of comings and goings — that is most stressful. There is an emotional component to both the preparation and the reunion of traveler and family that plays out with every trip. "It is the pattern of leave-taking, or how many times one goes through that cycle, that makes life more difficult," she says.
Kyung Hee Lee, a post-doc who has been working with Zvonkovic for the past four years, has been examining the division of labor between the travelers and their spouses. "We found that gender still trumps everything when it comes to household labor," says Lee. "Wives do more housework than their husbands regardless of whether they travel for work or not. Obviously, children add more work. Thus, wives who have children at home do the most household labor; again, regardless of their travel status."
Women also help to prepare their families for a departure whether or not they are the one traveling. Some women prepare meals ahead of time or set out daily sets of clothing. One woman made and froze casseroles for her family to eat while she was gone, even though they rarely ate that dish at any other time. Those casseroles were frequently still in the freezer upon her return. With regard to the frequency of household tasks when a partner was on the road, spouses did significantly less cooking, dish washing, and grocery shopping.
Daily health habits were examined, including aspects of diet and exercise. It appears that travelers eat better when on the road but Zvonkovic notes that the bar was not set very high to begin with, as the typical family with children can be so concerned with getting their children from one activity to the next that they tend to depend on takeout and fast food.
On the road, travelers ate more fruits and green, leafy vegetables, seemingly capitalizing on hotel offerings and menus where sides come with the meal. They also drank more caffeine, which translated into less sleep, particularly for the men. Women typically viewed their travel as a bit of a respite from the hubbub of home and seemed to manage to overcome the caffeine for a better night's rest on the road.
Parenting responsibilities, such as providing transportation, helping with homework, doing an activity outside the home, or spending time together in the house, were logged into the daily diaries. Generally, male travelers like to make sure that routines are kept; many fathers who were deeply involved in their children's lives would know the carpool schedule, take care of the mail, and pay the bills in advance of their trips. They also performed well on the parenting scale. "We see many dads who are very engaged in parenting, more so than what dads do in the literature," says Zvonkovic. "They are interactive participants in their children's lives — as coaches, as their biggest fan, or by playing computer games or Wii with them."
When women travel, there is more talk of appreciating what women do when they're home. There is a phrase used in human development literature called "maternal gatekeeping," whereby some mothers close the gate and don't let fathers be that involved. This proverbial gate is opened, however, when the woman is not there. "A father tends to talk more about appreciating what his wife does," says Zvonkovic, "because he notices it more when he occasionally has to do it himself."
Another interesting finding was the difference between what the traveler thought their partner felt about travel and how the partner really feels.
"Usually, the traveler thought that the partner viewed travel more negatively than was the case, whereas the spouse merely viewed it as a necessary inconvenience," says Zvonkovic. If a travel schedule had changed, for example when the economy forced downsizings that translated into larger territories, then a partner tended to respond with more frustration, making remarks such as "I didn't buy into this" or "this wasn't what I bargained for."
"Overall, the dynamics aren't much different from a family that does not have someone that travels for their work, but things are exaggerated because of being physically unavailable," says Zvonkovic. "Dealing with travel has a way of drawing partners into the family; it can make them aware and more appreciative of each other. Families can benefit from time away."
Today's employers do consider family issues and family friendliness of work. Zvonkovic's research suggests that considering family when designing work travel schedules would benefit workers.
"I hope my research helps people who are confronted with the difficult challenge of constructing a satisfying and vibrant personal life along with meeting work obligations," says Zvonkovic.
"Anisa is contributing importantly to research on relationships between work and family life, especially with her study of the personal and family implications of traveling for work," says Rosemary Blieszner, Alumni Distinguished Professor and associate dean of the Graduate School at Virginia Tech. "She is showing employers, workers, policymakers, educators, and researchers what it takes to keep workers who must travel happy both on the job and at home."
Ideally, the dynamics are best if the traveler has some flexibility with the trip timetable. Zvonkovic notes that if a parent can schedule around important family events, such as children's recitals or athletic competitions, kids tend not to even comment on it.
Zvonkovic advocates for communication; having a dedicated time for a talk or a Skype between the traveler and the homefront is a good thing to plan.
A common pitfall is the mismatch of expectations when a family is reunited. The first day home from a trip can be a joyous reunion or a stressful gathering, depending on fatigue levels or whether one has traveled across time zones. While it is important to exchange news and catch up on what has been missed, synching the rhythms can be difficult. Again, communication is helpful to make sure that everyone is on the same page. For instance, will one be shooting hoops with the kids or crashed on the couch? Some children save up stories to regale their parent, who will need to have some listening skills and patience.
"Rhythm and time are interesting concepts," says Zvonkovic. "In a sense, the fact of having a family member coming and going allows families to talk about and understand aspects of their lives that may be more hidden for families when all members are present."
Life can be difficult to choreograph for everyone. Those families that experience the demands of a work traveler may have a more challenging dance step but, truth be told, they are just as apt to step on toes or twirl magnificently as the stay-at-home family next door.
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Reflections from a graduate student
"One of the most interesting aspects for me has been finding out that participation in the study had an influence on the family's life," says Andrea Swenson, a Ph.D. candidate who has worked on this project for the past three years. Her analysis of whether participants experienced any change in behaviors or perceptions as a result of being in the study found that 29.6 percent of the adult participants indicated that they changed their communication with their spouse while 29.1 percent indicated that they experienced an increase in communication with their children.
"Another interesting aspect of working on the project was that we, as interviewers, were also exposed to work-related travel," says Swenson. "In order to interview families in their own homes, we had to travel all over the country. It was an interesting situation: While studying work-related travel, we were also experiencing it. While sometimes taxing — with early flights, delays, and coordinating travel plans with a team of interviewers as well as the travel and situation of the families we were going to interview — it provided us the opportunity to gain an understanding of and insight to what our participants experience."