August 3, 2021

Positive thinking

As companies prepare for a travel restart the wellbeing of their travellers is being placed high on the agenda, says Bev Fearis

For all the turmoil it has caused, the Covid crisis has brought positives too. “If there is one silver lining in the pandemic, it’s that in more than 30 years in this industry I have never seen this level of engagement with CEOs and C-Suite executives in relation to health-related issues in the workplace,” says Dr Rodrigo Rodriguez-Fernandez, Global Medical Director at health and security specialists International SOS.

“I have never had to brief so many board-level executives on health and wellbeing issues. It’s being discussed in a way it never was before, opening a new channel and line of conversation, and this is something we can definitely keep for the future.”

Of course, the wellbeing trend was already gaining traction in corporate travel departments before the pandemic, but the arrival of Covid-19 has taken it to a whole new level. As they prepare for a travel restart, companies of all shapes and sizes and across all sectors are now looking carefully at how to support their travellers’ wellbeing, both physical and mental, as they get back on the road.

“Business travel, we know, is a highly stressful situation for numerous reasons, and when business travel starts to go back to normal levels, Covid-19 will just add that uncertainty and that additional stress,” says Dr Rodriguez-Fernandez.

Indeed, International SOS, which counts nearly two-thirds of the Fortune Global 500 companies as clients, was experiencing a tenfold jump in calls from corporate managers at the end of 2020 compared to pre-Covid, along with a significant rise in demand for its emotional support services.

Mental health issues have sky-rocketed during the pandemic for a number of reasons. Access to usual support services has been reduced in affected countries and many people are now more isolated, working from home and prevented by repeated lockdowns from having as much contact with friends and family.

Travel managers should be aware that the mental state of an employee could be fragile even before the prospect of a business trip is thrown into the mix.

Calls to International SOS show traveller concerns aren’t necessarily about contracting the virus itself, but could also relate to how to deal with potential travel disruption caused by fast-changing travel restrictions.

“Travellers might call to say they’ve just flown to a destination where there’s been a large outbreak and everything is now shut, or they might say their boss has asked them to go but they’re feeling stressed and are worried they’re going to burn out,” explains Dr Rodriguez-Fernandez.

“Others are worried about catching Covid on a plane, or their families might be worried about them bringing it back home.”

Clear messaging

Experts agree the key is to make sure companies have measures and procedures in place to deal with any situation that might arise and, crucially, to make sure these are communicated in the right way to give reassurance to travellers.

“We need to provide as much evidence and science-based information as possible and this information needs to be consistent and coming from a person that people trust within the organisation – and the higher up the organisation the better,” says Dr Rodriguez-Fernandez.

“The most protective safety net is communication and learning. From a mental health perspective, the more information you can give an employee the safer they will feel,” he adds.

“More mature companies are taking this into their own hands and rather than relying solely on government advice they are going above and beyond. We need to move companies from being reactive to proactive, but unfortunately very few are in that mindset at the moment.”

istock.com/phototechno

Any guidance from senior management must also be backed up with communication and support from line managers, who might be better placed to assess an employee’s state of mind.

“First of all, HR need to make it clear to everyone, in black and white, that it’s OK not to travel and that there will be no negative impact if people say ‘no’,” explains Matt Holman, Co-Founder of the Business Travel Wellbeing Community and the owner of Simpila Healthy Solutions.

“Companies need to enable that conversation early on and encourage their people to be honest about how they feel about the trip; to explain what they might be worried about so you can see how you can support them,” he says.

Talking to travellers post trip is also vital, says Holman. “It shouldn’t just be about how successful the trip was and whether you got the contract. The conversation after the trip has to go to a deeper level: ‘How did you feel? Did you feel prepared for that trip? Did you have the right kit?'”

For many years companies have had sturdy procedures in place to support employees travelling to destinations perceived as high risk, but amid the pandemic many other trips – even short-distance or domestic ones – can trigger fear and apprehension. Furthermore, it brings the added dimension of causing anxiety to loved ones back home.

“We have that new dynamic where someone might say my wife or husband doesn’t want me to travel, or a loved one is vulnerable and is worried they might bring the virus back home,” says Holman.

“The issue is where do you stop managing people? Is there a point where it stops?”

“Travel managers should be aware that the mental state of an employee could be fragile even before the prospect of a business trip is thrown into the mix”

Home working could make it more difficult for managers to keep tabs on their travellers’ mental wellbeing.

“We’ve lost that personal connection, perhaps before a meeting or over a coffee, where we chat about things that aren’t the job or about the trip,” says Holman. “This has to be built in to the new working from home environment.”

While many companies have support programmes in place for their employees, these often only kick into action when matters get to the crisis stage.

“Whether it’s problems with their finances, relationships or mental health, employees often don’t know that these assistance programmes exist until they have a crisis. Companies need to make sure their employees are aware they are there to help them in the early stages, when they’re starting to struggle. Prevention is the key.”

Taking precautions

In the same vein, some companies are now putting measures into place during a trip to alleviate potential stress points.

“With the new anxieties that come with travel and the higher likelihood for trip friction and delay, companies are upgrading some travellers to higher classes of service, to not only ensure traveller safety but to protect mental wellbeing so they can remain calm, rested and, ultimately, more effective while travelling for business,” says Francesca Mendola, Global Account Manager for GTC, the newly-named parent of Protravel International and Tzell Travel Group.

This might be things like giving access to airport lounges, upgrading to premium cabins or booking hotels with larger rooms or balconies.  “These upgrades are not only key if a traveller is spending more time in their room working and exercising, but they also become essential should a traveller need to quarantine,” she adds.

Nicola Cox, Director at MIDAS Travel, says the TMC is also noticing this trend, with more demand for additional services.

“Some travellers are experiencing a new, more luxurious, way to travel, which in turn reduces stress and anxiety levels,” she says.

“We’ve seen minor changes make big differences to travel programmes and travellers in recent months, such as relaxing ‘economy-only’ policies, enabling seat selection and providing contactless travel services, such as online check-in and VIP fast track. These are services that travellers are taking advantage of for a safer and more comfortable trip. We expect that the positive effect these value-added services will have on traveller wellbeing will ensure they are here to stay well beyond Covid-19.”

See this feature and more in the latest issue of The Business Travel Magazine