I used to travel frequently overseas for business. I used to struggle in silence with a very empty feeling. I used to struggle with loneliness when I travelled. Millions of business travellers also struggle with these challenges. Let me tell you about the reality of these challenges from my perspective.
Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK is taking place on 9th-15th May – the Theme is Loneliness
Recently I published a brief poll on LinkedIn asking a simple question: Do you feel lonely when you travel for work? The answers and responses from over 100 people are shown below:
As you can see 43% of those who responded said that they never or rarely feel lonely when they travel for work. The balance of course is something that we should all take notice of. 57% of the total respondents feel lonely sometimes or all of the time.
I have seen attitudes to these statistics in the past saying that if only 10% of the population are struggling with Loneliness, it is good that we have 90% that don’t. This approach for me is totally missing the point. We truly need to know what we can do to help everyone, not just the majority. It all starts with simple approaches and connections.
Let me explain why I struggled with Loneliness (and still do on occasions) even though most would think of me as very sociable, outgoing and confident (the exterior we show is sometimes playing tricks on others).
In my last role in the Business Travel Industry I used to travel to the US each month for around 5-7 days. I often travelled on a Sunday and returned the following Saturday. It was a normal straightforward trip. London to Washington DC. But I often travelled alone, went to my hotel, ate and drank alone, and spent most of my time working (mostly to appease some of the boredom of being alone).
Every morning I would get up and head to the office (about 500 metres from my hotel) and arrive around 0800. I would go about my meetings and workload for the day, step out for lunch and call home. I always felt as though I was interrupting home routines for my children as I would call at a time they were eating, having a bath or preparing for bed. I often left the call feeling very low, and I craved connection with my own family and home environment. They didn’t realise the impact they were having on my feelings of loneliness. My wife and I actually sat down and discussed this after I left the travel industry.
Each evening I would be one of the last to leave the office (everyone else had gone home to their lives and families), walk back to my hotel and likely go to the bar for a drink, before deciding where locally to have something to eat. It would be around 1900 in the evening and my family and friends in the UK were now tucked up in bed as it was midnight back home.
After 1900 in the evening was my lonely time. I felt like I had no connection, I felt low. Little wonder that last role really did take its toll on my mental health.
This brings me back to the importance of the 10% feeling lonely all of the time. I had so many trips to conferences and events where I felt alone even when I was in the room with colleagues and industry friends. I would often over compensate by drinking more alcohol and using it to bring out ‘Fun Matt’. It was mostly me pretending.
According to the UK Charity Mind feeling lonely can also have a negative impact on your mental health, especially if these feelings have lasted a long time. Some research suggests that loneliness is associated with an increased risk of certain mental health problems, including depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, sleep problems and increased stress.
What can we do? How can we overcome loneliness? What can we do to support others around us who are struggling?
Overcoming loneliness is not easy for everyone, but there are actions that we can all take to improve how we feel. These simple actions are outlined below:
- Keep in touch – reach in or reach out to friends
- Join a group or find a community when you travel
- Do things that you enjoy at home – take the gym gear or schedule some time to do some sightseeing activities
- Share your feelings – talk openly about what is going on
- Help someone else feel connected – If you have people travelling to you can you spend any time with them socially to help them feel connected?
I still have bouts of loneliness, but it is now a feeling that I notice and can understand better. For me loneliness often comes when I am in a position that others around me (my wife or children) decide that they are going to do their own things. If I choose to take time out I am ok, when others take time away from me I do struggle to make choices that shift my mood (I find it hard to settle).
Mental Health Awareness is about us taking the time to understand more about the moments that make an impact to us. How we react to the feelings and how we embrace the opportunity to be open and support others through their challenges. The feeling of loneliness when we travel for work is real, many do struggle (of course many do not struggle and we recognise this as well).
We need to connect at the human level, understand each other from the inside, and create the environment where we can all be truly honest and open about our feelings.
If you would like to know more, or have your own insights or stories to share please feel free to get in touch.