The No.1 Tactic For Long-distance Dads

Luke BenedictusBy Luke Benedictus.
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At first travelling for work can feel like a glamorous perk. You mop up the frequent flyer points, nab a good night’s sleep in a hotel and (whisper it) also wangle a temporary break from the parenting treadmill.  But when you’ve got a young family and you’re away from home a lot, the novelty quickly wears thin.

Being forced to buddy up with Neil from sales is far from the only downside. Researchers from the University of Surrey and Lund University (Sweden) found that frequent work trips can bring a shit-storm of health, social and family problems.

The study called “The dark side of hypermobility” reveals that business trips can lead to stress, loneliness and the fraying of family bonds. The partner at home often starts to feel abandoned and resentful, while the traveller experiences guilt at being away.

Tristan White has confronted these problems head-on. He’s CEO of The Physio Co, a business that, for 10 straight years, has ranked as one of Australia’s 50 Best Places to Work. White built the company up from scratch and now employs 150 team members across five states. The sticking point? White is also the father to three young children: Alexandra (7), Harriet (4) and Roman (2).

Reconciling these responsibilities is a challenge. White’s family are based in Foster on the Victorian coast, but three days a week he’ll find himself in Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide, Brisbane “or wherever I need to be to lead our team”.

The constant travel takes its toll. “The hardest thing is not being there for my wife and kids,” White says. “Not being physically present to help Kimberley with the inevitable challenges that happen with little ones – like daily school and kinder drop offs, toddler tantrums and illnesses is really tough. This is a time of life when it feels really bloody hard.”

In a bid to tackle the problem, White and his wife, Kimberley, devised a simple ritual to maintain strong family connections. Whenever he’s away for work, the whole family book-end each day with FaceTime chats at 6.45am and 6.45pm.

“It’s pretty hectic on that call, trying to talk to four people at a time,” White says.  “But each of the kids will take the phone in turn and we’ll have a quick one-on-one where I can ask them what they’re doing that day and how they’re feeling about it.”

During the call, White will show his kids where he is, the view from his window and what he’s up to (invariably work on his laptop). It’s a basic process but one that provides his kids with a welcome dose of attention, reassurance and routine.

“Sometimes we just eat Weet-Bix or Rice Bubbles together,” he says. “It’s about connection.”

White admits it’s not a fool-proof tactic. His own mind-set, he explains, is crucial to its success. Whenever he’s stressed or distracted the chat with his kids is rarely effective. “I have to show up engaged and connected or it just doesn’t work.”

To further off-set his weekly absences, White has organised his schedule so that he now works from home the other two days a week.  “When I’m at home we eat dinner together each night,” he says. “I do school and kinder drop offs, coach Alex’s  U10s basketball and go to plenty of swimming lessons. I do my best to be as involved as possible.”

The situation echoes that of White’s own father who worked on the Bass Strait oil rigs. The nature of the work meant he’d be home for a week and then away for a week. “But when he was at home, my father was present,” he recalls. “I have that memory of my father being very invested.”

For now, White doesn’t pretend he’s found a magic solution. The juggling act between business and family remains a work in progress, but he and his wife are at least working together on finding the counterbalance. That remains an ongoing mission. “We don’t always get it right,” he says. “Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.”