Every Which Way but Home

Small businesses lead the way in giving employees time off to restore family ties and compensate for on-the-job travel

By Pamela Mendels

I winced when I read the statements:

From a child: "I forget what he looks like when he's gone so long."

From a wife: "My husband missed our son's high school graduation .. . None of us has ever forgotten."

These are two of the comments researchers at the World Bank heard in focus groups organized to gauge the impact of international business travel on employees and their families. One 1999 study of peripatetic employees sums it all up: More than one-third of the 498 World Bank workers surveyed reported that business travel led to high or very high levels of stress. Another 42% said travel caused them some stress. One of the main drivers of all that tension? Fear that the employee's stay away from home was hurting family life.

The study is not perfect, says Lennart Dimberg, a doctor and senior occupational health specialist at World Bank headquarters in Washington, D.C.. It could be, says Dimberg, that dissatisfied travelers were more likely to respond to the survey. Still, Dimberg says, with close to 80% of business travelers questioned reporting some level of anxiety as a result of their wanderings, the numbers are large enough to merit notice.


  I bring up the World Bank study because of another figure that crossed my desk recently, one that should bring kudos to the small-business community. It turns out that the smallest companies are the ones most likely to offer their employees time off to compensate for business travels. About 27% of employers with less than 100 employees give their jet-lagged and homesick workers this break. By contrast, only 15% of companies with between 501 and 1,000 employees do so. The average for companies of all sizes is 22%.

The finding was contained in a new and large-scale employee-benefits study (754 employers) conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management. True, the large companies race ahead of the small ones in big-ticket items, such as subsidized child care, elder-care referral services, and assistance to wives and husbands who have to relocate when spouses are transferred. While we're on the subject, the study was also interesting for pointing out some of the newer trends in benefits. Pet insurance, for example. And naps during the workday.

But to return to the point, it was the apparent generosity of small employers when it comes to comp time that caught my eye. That's because a lack of time for life beyond the job is one of the big problems facing adults today, and the demands of business travel in a global economy have not made things easier. In 1999, Americans logged 165 million business travel trips, a jump of 4% from five years earlier, according to the Travel Industry Association of America. One measure of what that means to families may be the fact that growing numbers of employees are taking the children along on their business wanderings.


  Comp time is another sensible solution, because it allows some of those lost personal hours to be recouped -- and, unlike business travel with family members, it's enjoyed away from laptops, fax machines, and company voicemail.

I polled a couple of human-resource experts about why they thought small businesses were more likely to offer comp time than their larger counterparts. The consensus was that comp time is often given informally, rather than through corporate time-off rules, by a sympathetic boss who knows the troops well enough to recognize when they need a break. "Comp time is probably not a matter of policy, but how human beings treat each other as humans with individual needs. At big companies, policies sometimes get in the way of that," says Susan Seitel, president of Work & Family Connection, Inc., a work/life information and consulting service based in Minneapolis.

Seitel's one worry, and it applies to companies of all sizes, is that the economic slowdown may spur businesses to cut costs, and one easy way would be to require weekend -- read, cheaper -- airline travel. That could mean more Saturdays and Sundays lost to airports.

For now, though, let's focus on the positive. The lesson of the benefits survey is that, although small companies may lack the financial resources of big companies, their smallness allows them a touch of humanity often lacking in large corporations. Travel-weary employees, no doubt, greatly appreciate the difference.

Pamela Mendels is based in New York City. She wrote about small business and had a workplace advice column at Newsday, and has written about workplace matters for BusinessWeek, Working Woman, and the Web site iGuide.

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