Road Warrior Burnout - The Biochemistry
Updated: Jan 10
Burnout is an occupational hazard for road warriors. The corporations recognise the toll burnout takes on an organisation’s ability to function¹. All indications are that corporations are at a loss about how to mitigate burnout and stop talent leaving. Burnout for road warriors is especially debilitating as the lifestyle is not amenable to the steps needed to restore wellness of the person, and their ability to function as a unit in a productive workplace. Furthermore, business travel is tough and the chance of burnout is high when road warriors are not well prepared, the majority of them aren’t.
In this article and the following series we are going to look broadly at how road warriors get to burnout, how issues of the road warrior lifestyle complicate the road to recovery and solutions needed to sustain traveller wellbeing.
First let's remove any ambiguity about this conversation by saying the burnout conversation preceded the mental health conversation, which is also part of the challenges in the workplace. The World Economic Forum platform highlighted burnout as a workplace challenge as early as 2011 in Davos ².
The scientific literature ³ defines burnout as having three key aspects to it, exhaustion, cynicism and inefficacy. Exhaustion is particularly relevant to our conversations as this is usually of a physical nature and the route through which road warriors land in burnout. The physically demanding nature of being a road warrior produces wear and tear on the traveller that is hard to recover from consistently. I would suggest most road warriors have flirted with burnout at some stage of their travel on business.
Why is physical exhaustion a primary feature of burnout for road warriors? I would offer that it is not the trips per se that are exhausting, but the inability to have enough time off after the trips to fully recuperate before getting back on the road again. Getting hit with a gruesome travel itinerary is hard enough, but doing that type of trip back to back without pause to recover is vitality sapping. In a visceral way it erodes defenses and immunity.
Road warrior immunity is put to the test every time they step on a plane. Although the cabin environment may look similar to any other we inhabit, it isn't, it is an “alien” environment. The cabin is pressurized, the plane is exposed to higher doses of ionizing radiation and breathable air is scarce and recycled. Road warriors spend a long time in this environment. As immunity breaks down after repeated encounters in this harsh environment burnout is not far behind.
Before road warriors get to that point of breakdown they go through diminishing cycles of deteriorating health. If not for the subtlety of how long the deterioration takes, the alarm bells would go off much sooner. The two main changes to highlight are a change in the pH balance of the body and a change in the hormonal workings of the body.
pH stands for the potential of Hydrogen. In chemical reactions it is a measure of the acidity or alkalinity of a solution. The number of hydrogen ion with a negative or positive charge are the determining factors of alkalinity or acidity. H+ being the measure of acidity and OH - being the measure of alkalinity. While both acid and alkaline reactions contribute to the correct functioning of the body, overall health status is determined by keeping pH within strict parameters. When the body is unable to keep correct pH around the body and in the tissues this can be the first erosion of bodily immunity before other symptoms emerge. This opens the door to an inability to recover well and build vitality that is a causal factor of deep exhaustion in road warriors.
Hormones are master regulators of the body, they work on a feedback loop. Melatonin, the hormone mostly known for its association with sleep, is in fact a master hormone and a super antioxidant of the body. Working with exposure to daylight it sets the clock for hormonal patterns that support health as well as good sleep. Road warrior frequent travel upsets healthy melatonin production and poses the problem of good sleep but also the body’s ability to support antioxidant pathways. This includes actions and functions of other hormones down the line. Without these pathways working well they also contribute to diminishing the body’s ability to defend itself.
pH and hormonal adjustments come to us all as the body ages, road warriors get there at an accelerated rate. Lifestyle choices also play a role in how health is manifested for the traveller. If there are no solid health and vitality building practices in the road warriors’ lifestyle staying healthy on the road can be an uphill struggle even before burnout sets in.Fundamental disruptions to biochemistry like this pave the way to burnout through physical exhaustion and no immunity to protect the traveller. This is even without other stresses of family or work in the mix.
Ultimately the road warrior has to comprehend that they have the responsibility for their biochemistry and work to preserve its functionality as a priority. Corporations on the other hand also have a role to play. We will cover that in the next article and round it out with a third covering tools, suggestions and recommendations for road warriors to consider.
Beating the Burnout - https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2012/01/davos-2012-beating-the-burnout/
Maslach, C. and Leiter, M.P. (2016), Understanding the burnout experience: recent research and its implications for psychiatry. World Psychiatry, 15: 103-111. https://doi.org/10.1002/wps.20311