Employers can help workers who travel balance family, career demands


October 07, 1991|By Adriane Miller | Adriane Miller,Special to The Sun

He's out on the road for the monthly 10-day sales whirl, coping with cold burgers, hot hotel rooms, the boss's busy signal and clients who forget their appointments.

With days yet to go, he settles back with a room-service cocktail to make the nightly call home. His breathless spouse reports that one kid has tonsillitis, the other missed the school bus, the basement flooded -- and he's lounging at the Hilton drinking a martini?

That's when the anxiety starts to kick in.

A decade ago, sales reps and other highly mobile employees would have been expected to bury the anxiety, or at least handle it on their own time. But helping such employees balance their family and career demands is increasingly important for companies.

That help can mean the difference between keeping a healthy, productive employee, or losing one to stress and burnout, says Thomas Little, an educational consultant to the Employee Assistance Program at Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital.

"Things go wrong in a context," Mr. Little says. "Hardly ever do you have a crisis that is not preceded by a time when things were slipping. You need to spot problems before they get too bad and while people are still well enough to handle them. Ongoing preventive activities help people stay healthier, reduce long-term costs, and are better for business."

Bill Fisher, a mid-Atlantic field service engineer with the Buick division of General Motors Corp., knows the value of heading off problems. With his car or a hotel room usually serving as an office, he travels about 12 business days a month, often over weekends.

"I enjoy being out on the road for a night or two," says Mr. Fisher, a husband and father of three children. "But after a week or two weeks at a time I start thinking about the things I'd like to do at home. I don't like knowing I can't wake up in the middle of the night, go get a drink of cold water from my own refrigerator and come back to get in bed beside my wife."

His wife, Sandra, has grown accustomed to her husband's frequent travel. "But his not being able to attend school functions for the kids -- that's hard," she says. "And if he's gone two weeks I get lonesome, and that's real hard."

L So, Mr. Fisher asks his supervisor for a break now and then.

"When I say I want to spend some time at home, they say, do what you have to do, handle what you can by phone. If I say I need to take a couple of days to get away, there's no formal vacation policy for that, they say just do it and let us know where you're going to be."

Asking for and getting such flexibility was not always so easy. GM's former travel and relocation policies sent some employees packing to other companies, Mr. Fisher says.

"It used to be you didn't have a voice," he says. "But [GM] started losing people who said we're not going to [upset] our families like that. Now, they'll say, here's an opportunity -- do you think you're interested? Would your family be interested?"

Helping employees balance their needs doesn't always require significant changes in corporate policy, say human relations consultants. Here are some simple suggestions for managers:

* "The big thing is to take care of the spouse," says Mike Hornbuckle, president of Baltimore Consulting Group in Timonium. That's the person most significantly affected by an employee's travel, he says. "That person is at home trying to hold down the fort while the other person is out, often enjoying themselves."

Taking care of the spouse may simply mean talking frequently with the employee and spouse to determine how a tough travel schedule is working for the family.

"A lot of handy awards come out of frequent flier [programs]," Mr. Hornbuckle adds. "Some companies make employees turn in their awards for savings for the company." But he says they should allow the employees to use the travel awards for private getaways.

"We also like to see companies arrange for spouses to go along on some business trips if possible," Mr. Hornbuckle says. "When a spouse goes along they get . . . better appreciation for the type of work the employee does."

* Give employees freedom to schedule out-of-town trips around family events. Be generous with comp time.

"If the employee has a really bad travel schedule, give them a day off in the middle of the week to be with their family," Mr. Hornbuckle suggests.

* Make it easy for employees to travel.

Most large companies have travel departments that either book arrangements or help ease some of the stress and hassle for employees. Like many companies, Noxell Corp. in Hunt Valley provides its traveling employees with company credit cards, cash advances and prompt processing and reimbursement of expense reports.

Lincoln National, a Fort Wayne, Ind., insurance company, even offers child-care and housesitting referral services.

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