One The Road Again...
Preliminary data from climbers indicates they average 210 to 300 days of travel per year. Due to the small number of climbers in this industry compared to others, an extraordinary amount of travel days are inevitable and in the nature of the job. You are aware of this fact, so why bring it up? While you may be aware of the copious amounts of employee travel, are you aware of how this affects your climbers, their families, productivity levels, and your overall bottom line? Almost exclusively, the focus for most employers tends to be on the bottom line; it’s like a built-in knee-jerk reaction. However, research has proven that the extensive amounts of travel your climbers endure can take its toll on every aspect of your business.
The human element is always (at least it SHOULD BE) more important than the bottom line. In that spirit, I will illustrate how the human factor--your employees--affects all elements of your business… including your bottom line.
The Human Element – The Employee
Your most valuable asset is your technicians. Let’s face it, without them you don’t have a business. Being mindful and intimately aware of the human element that drives your business not only smart…it’s sound business practice. Not bring mindful of this element can end in potentially damaging backlash to your company’s reputation. With the prolific use of social media, one intentional or blatant disregard for an employees’ safety, health, or concerns could easily place a business on a social media “Wall of Shame.” Employers have not only a responsibility to their checkbook and bottom line, but a moral and legal responsibility to protect their employees and provide them a healthy and safe working environment.
Two hundred plus days on the road is detrimental physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually to the technician. An employee-focused company will provide equipment and training and invest in your men and women. In doing so, you create a solid foundation of mutual respect and integrity that your men and women can appreciate. You invest in them on a personal level. You provide not just monetarily, but moral support for the time they spend away from their families.
“I love you. I’ll be home; well…I guess I’ll be home when we get it done…”
We have established that travel is part of the job, and frequently travel is for extended periods. There are men and women in this industry who do not mind the travel and in some cases thrive in this type of environment. However, more often than not, your employees have extended families: wives, husbands, children, mothers, fathers, siblings, nieces, nephews. It’s potentially easy to lose sight of this while you, land the contracts, and focus on the business end of the spectrum. This is an opportunity to take a moment and soak in some information. Place yourself in the shoes of the people driving and building your business. Read. Reflect. Ponder. Then, consider making some changes, in order for your company to become employee-focused, if it’s not already.
Family Life and Relationships
I was one of those wives. My husband’s company was respectful of our home life and the need for the families to have time with one another. So, while travel was fairly extensive during certain seasons, the management at his company did a great deal to mitigate the travel in that the travel was usually limited to two to three weeks at a time, with a few weeks between jobs. I believe that this was due to the “Family Atmosphere” created by his employer. The owners and management level employees within that company cared about the employees’ spouses and children. They were genuinely concerned about the emotional and mental health effects of extensive travel on the fabric of their employees’ families. We had it better than most. I think Jonce might have traveled 150 to 175 days a year, maybe a bit more every other year or so.
I think of the families separated from their loved ones for 200, 250, 300, or more days a year and I shudder. Even though Jonce’s travel was relatively light in comparison to most climbers, we still had issues with time lost in the relationship, not feeling an emotional connectedness after extensive periods of travel, parenting difficulties, money issues, loneliness, depression, anxiety, feelings of abandonment, and a variety of other issues. Now, when I consider how those issues would have intensified or how these issues could have spiraled out of control if his travel schedule had been much worse, and it leaves me scratching my head. How do these other climber’s relationships and marriages survive? A lot of times, they don’t.
While there is enough research to write a book on the effects of familial separation as a function of ones employment, I will restrict myself to some of the more interesting highlights. For instance, current research shows us detrimental effects of extensive travel and work related pressures have on families. Extended periods away from home can have significantly negative effects on the psychological well-being of one’s spouse (Orthner & Rose, 2009). Extended periods away from home also affect the quality of relationships between spouses, between the absent parent and their children, and increase levels of marital discord and satisfaction. These also increase the likelihood of divorce and instability (Perry-Jenkins, Repetti, & Crouter, 2000). Stress at work creates a spillover effect in which stress from the job spills over into the family environment (Orthner & Rose, 2009). Furthermore, jobs that provoke poor interpersonal family relationships, and negative familial outcomes include jobs with rotating shifts (He, Zaho, & Archbold, 2002), irregular and long extended periods away from family (Orthner & Rose, 2003; Zvonkovic, Solomon, Humble, & Manoogian, 2005), and jobs that conflict with the spouse’s work schedule (White & Keith, 2009). Jobs that require extensive periods of separation are also positively correlated with negative familial effects, such as role confusion and role and personal realignment (Orthner & Rose, 2003).
Work can be a valuable and wonderful source of accomplishment and self efficacy (WHO, 2000), and its positive benefits have been recorded for years in academic research. Work provides needed encouragement, an increase in self-esteem, and provides people with a sense of accomplishment and pride (2000). However, work that requires attention to mentally and physically demanding conditions, is dangerous or life threatening, and/or involves extensive amounts of travel can also create, exacerbate, and reactivate mental health disorders in employees (2000).
Extensive periods of travel and demanding and sometimes dangerous physical demands are commonplace in the telecommunications industry. While employees agree to these stipulations upon hire, it is the responsibility of the employer to monitor the health of their employees, to ensure the employees are not pushed to the breaking point. Mental health issues are extremely serious, have devastating effects on families if left unaddressed, and it is the responsibility of the employer and the employee to work together to address the issues that affect the worker and their family. Mental health issues that are preexisting or develop over time affect both the employee as well as the family left at home.
Boss (2000) reported that when one spouse is away from home for extended periods of time, the home-based spouse is often left to constantly adjust to their roles, taking on the duties and responsibilities of the absent parent, often without the support and encouragement that defines the intimate relationship of marriage (also known as “ambiguous loss”) (Boss, 2000). Furthermore, this constant readjustment and the frequent “comings and goings” of the traveling spouse can increase the likelihood of feelings of abandonment and mental health issues (Boss, 2000), lower rates of marital satisfaction (Roberts & Levinson, 2001) and higher rates of turbulent relationships with children (Crouter, Bumpas, Head, & McHale, 2001). Additionally, several research studies have found that separation from the home for extended periods and when the work responsibilities are perceived by the home-based spouse as excessive or demanding, increase the likelihood for higher depression rates (Cohen, Kamarck, & Mermelstein, 1983), irritability and loneliness (Barnett & Hyde, 2001), symptoms similar to that of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) (Boss, 2006), mood issues/disorders, lack of energy (Voydanoff, 2005), loss of a sense of personal control (Westman & Etzion, 2005), and a host of other mental health issues.
It’s no secret that this industry has an embedded drug culture, and to say otherwise is putting your head in the sand. Let me write a small disclaimer here before I travel the rabbit hole. I am by no means stating that every climber uses drugs. I don’t believe that to be the case. I am also not stating that every climber who uses drugs is doing so for mental health reasons, or to self-medicate. Sadly, there are those who use drugs for no other reason than to “get high.”
There’s an entire article coming on drugs in the industry, so I won’t harp on it. However, I do want to focus on the element of mental health, as a function of drug use in this industry. Given that people self-medicate for a variety of reasons and that there is a mountain of research affirming drug use to mitigate mental health issues/symptoms (Harris & Edlund, 2005; Leeies, Pagura, Sareen, & Bolton, 2010; Mota, Medved, Whitney, Hiebert-Murphy, & Sareen, 2013), it is not unreasonable to assume that a decent percentage of climbers do utilize drugs as a coping mechanism. This need to self-medicate may be for a variety of reasons, many of which don’t have anything to do with their employment. Some employers do not address the areas in their business that DO cause problems, or exacerbate the mental health issues of employees. When climbers are forced to work for extensive periods of time away from home and away from stabilizing factors in their life, you have potential problems. Most of which are costly not only for your company, but for the well-being of all of your employees.
It could very well be that the employee who is self-medicating will engage in unsafe activities (show up high/drunk to the site, climb under the influence, drive under the influence, commit acts of violence/assault, etc.). You also have the potential for an employee to injure/ kill themselves or others on the job, because they are under the influence. This, in turn, could lead to other issues (belligerent attitude, poor work performance, legal costs, increases in insurance premiums, OSHA investigations, etc.). Beyond these issues, you have an employee choosing to self-medicate instead of actually seeking help for the core issues that drive the addiction(s).
Employers do not need to babysit their employees. Employers are not responsible for every issue the employee is having (you might not be responsible for any of them). Nor should the employer take on the responsibility for someone else’s personal choices. Do I tolerate climbers using drugs or other substances (even in their off time)? Absolutely not. However, I do think that employers have an obligation (maybe not legal, but moral) to ensure the workplace environment does not either exacerbate or contribute to the onset of mental health issues of their employees. The choices you make as an employer don’t affect just you, it affects everyone. I know the job has to get done, I know that the deadline was three weeks ago, and I know that you need your business to become bigger and to produce more income. I also think that if your employees are traveling too much, pushing too hard, and the company is growing so fast that it is at the expense of you and your employees, you are doing yourself a disservice.
Human Element + Productivity = Your Company’s Bottom Line
You know better than I do what technical aspects affect your bottom line, but there are issues that affect your bottom line that I know you might not be aware of, These are issues you might consider incidental or not at all related; you just deal with them as they presents themselves. Issues like: traffic tickets, traffic accidents, company vehicle maintenance, and lower worker productivity levels as a function of fatigue, mental health issues, minor workplace injuries, self-medication by employees, anger, & resentment. Yes, the human factor in your business plays a role that can affect your business.
If you haven’t made the connection yet, all of these things we have touched on affect not only workers, they affect your business. Extended travel and all the related periphery elements affect your employees. Extended travel can cause workers to become stressed, distracted, and not perform to the best of their ability. That, in turn, means your sites are a mess, equipment isn’t installed like it should be, workers will attempt to take short cuts to get the job done and THAT, in turn, affects your company. You will experience reduced productivity, turnover, lost jobs, and jobs not performed correctly. In other words—lost revenue. In addition to the business side, you will more than likely be left with some pretty cranky climbers, which are no fun to be around, much less to manage.
I have another complete article on morale and productivity, but suffice it to say that years of research have demonstrated the morale of employees has a direct relationship to productivity (Iverson & Zatzick, 2011;Rigby, 2013; Hamilton, 2010). If the employees don’t feel appreciated, or if they feel taken advantage of, productivity goes down, revenue suffers, workplace environments become tense, and the working relationships between you and your climbers is going to take a serious hit; everyone loses. In that spirit, I have taken comments and emails from climbers on how they feel about this particular topic. Here are some suggestions directly from the climbers and their spouses:
· Keep the jobs local (#1 response).
· Keep the jobs to 2-3 weeks.
· Family emergencies should be a given to take time off.
· Getting home on the holidays at a decent time, not the same day or hours beforehand.
· Provide the climbers Skype to have face-to-face time with family, when they have to be away from home for extended periods.
· Provide ticket/gas money and/or a hotel room for spouses or children one time per month if they will be away from home longer than 2 months.
· Employee paid “outings” where spouses are invited (picnics, company vacations as a company, with spouses included).
· “A bit more per diem. I was out 8 months 5 to 6 days at a time, and home for 2 to 3 days at a time, and then fly right back out! A paid week off would have been really nice. All I did was sleep when I did go home because I was so tired. This left me no real time to spend with the wife and kids! NOT GOOD for a family man!”
· If married, but no children, allow the spouse to travel with the climber.
· Allot the climber a “Family Separation Pay Bump” after an agreed upon number of days (30 or 60 days).
· “Try harder to find people willing to learn the trade in the areas they send us away to.”
· Higher compensation.
· “Rotate crews of climbers, to reduce the amount of time spent ‘on the road.’”
Depending on company size, some of these suggestions are not feasible for every business in the industry, and that is understandable. This list is a way for you to generate your own ideas to improve your relationships with your employees. Improving the workplace, helping employees feel appreciated, and taking a part in supporting your employee’s family life, is not only the moral thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do. Creating a family-oriented culture allows your employees to feel confident that they can come to you with an issue. That atmosphere creates a far more productive work environment than one in which the employee feels they have to avoid you, self-medicate, or lie about the things affecting their work. Working together improves morale, productivity, increases job satisfaction, and reduces turnover. It’s not It does require you to create something new—a challenge I hope all businesses within this industry strive towards.
As the President of Hubble Foundation, I deal the families of the fallen, but I also deal with the active climbers and their families; several of which volunteer for me on a regular basis. I know them, and they tell me what they want; most climbers just want a solid employer that really cares about them. As a whole, the climbers in this industry feel like no one cares about them, the jobs they perform, and the personal sacrifices they make in terms of family to do what needs to be done. As an employer, your company should have a vested interest in wanting to create a solid and positive atmosphere for both you and your employees.
I am available to help you get the process started. As a Workplace and Family Strategist, with a doctorate in Human Services, I provide services to any business in the industry that would like assistance in this area. Please feel free to call me at Hubble Foundation, to get things underway. I can be reached at:
3204 Upton Gray Place
Foley, AL 36535