July 13, 2024

Going the extra mile

It’s a subject that can no longer be ignored, but how are companies embracing traveller wellbeing? Nick Easen investigates

It’s said that work-life balance is one of the biggest sources of stress and anxiety around the globe, surely work-life-travel balance is up there too?

The fact is, there are few business trips that don’t have at least an element of tiredness, tension, fatigue, sweat or tears, some can even lead to exhaustion or poor mental health. This is why traveller wellbeing now tops the agenda.

“Trips are stressful, with some travellers putting themselves under a lot of pressure. The fact is everything in travel is evolving fast, travel policy, workplace elements and travel itself,” explains Sarah Marshall, Travel & Security Manager at DAI.

Right now, wellbeing is a hugely trendy topic, in an age where duty of care means everything, and it’s one that’s here to stay. This year, the World Health Organisation even included ‘burnout’ – caused by work related stress – as an official illness, while a recent World Bank study found that 75% of staff reported high or very high stress levels related specifically to business travel.

“Corporations now understand that they need to help employees manage ‘company time’ out-side of the office and ensure that employees are compensated for the time taken to travel – time off in lieu is key. This also extends to jet lag and travelling to regions with a significant time difference,” says Suzanne Sangiovese, Operations Manager for the Americas at Riskline.

It helps that attitudes are evolving rapidly, with organisations now looking to manage traveller welfare as much as they do cost. There is an increasing realisation that a frazzled and tired employee isn’t productive or creative on the road. This can lead to sickness, low productivity even staff turnover; however, these are still early days.

“Practical changes to travel programmes to positively impact peoples’ lives, are yet to become mainstream. Some larger corporates are leading the way with wellbeing programmes, but to-date most SMEs – small to medium enterprises – haven’t followed suit,” states Bex Deadman, Commercial Director at Blue Cube Travel.

The Guardsman

Data-driven analyses via tech platforms and tools are coming to the fore, wellbeing scores and stress indexes based on delays, red-eye flights, troublesome long-haul trips, layovers, the quality of the airline, class of travel, weekends away, and ‘out of hours’ travel, even such gripes as sitting in the middle seat of an airplane, now help travel bookers make sense of a complex issue.

“With predictive analytics we can highlight the patterns that compromise traveller experience and employee satisfaction. This insight can then be used to build a more comprehensive strategy, one that is based on real behaviour,” says Katie Skitterall, Director of UK Sales and Operations, the ATPI Group.

“By using meaningful data, the right decisions can start to be made. Whilst we know conversations are taking place in the boardroom, the facts and data to back up the story aren’t necessarily being used.”

Some organisations are measuring so-called ‘traveller friction’ via automated and simple surveys after each trip. These can help identify flaws in travel policies, as well as areas for improvement. “But if you’re doing this you also need to have systems and resources in place to respond,” states Richard Stabbins, Vice President, Traveller Care UK at American Express GBT. “It can certainly be counterproductive if feedback goes unanswered.”

Data has always been used to control travel spend, but now there’s a clearer understanding of how the total cost of each trip, sits alongside its real value or return on investment (ROI) to the company, and whether it was a positive experience. There is a trade-off and this why this triumvirate of factors is a crucial nexus going forwards.

“Now we can make clear linkages between employee wellbeing and productivity, that can be quantified to a pound or dollar value. The overall loss in employee productivity on a trip can actually outweigh the cost of the airline ticket in some cases,” details Richard Johnson, Senior Director for EMEA at CWT Solutions Group. These are early days though.  

A lack of ownership

One big challenge is that employee wellbeing strays well beyond travel policy and often comes knocking on the door of human resources and procurement. Yet a broader stakeholder umbrella rarely comes into play, even though it’s needed in order to make better informed policy decisions in this more enlightened 21st century.  

“There is a lack of ownership of the traveller wellbeing space and a lack of understanding of who should be responsible for delivering this within an organisation. Everyone thinks that the solution is going to cost too much, so they won’t invest. This is a very old fashioned and narrow-focused vision,” exclaims Matthew Holman, Head of Traveller Wellbeing at Capita Travel and Events.    

It’s also starting to dawn on many large organisations that if they want to retain talent, reduce burnout and promote employee longevity they need to invest in traveller wellbeing, one that balances cost and worker welfare in equal measure.

The good thing is that the awareness genie is out of the bottle with high profile figures such as Prince Harry and other celebrities highlighting mental health issues.

“With the continued raised consciousness around wellbeing, employees are going to be less willing to make the sacrifices that were expected in the past, and employers therefore have to recognise that worker wellbeing must be a higher priority for them,” says Lorna Dunning, Mindset Coach and former VP for Transformation, American Express GBT.

Taking back control

Let’s also recognise that the groundswell of interest in wellbeing isn’t just coming from professionals interested in duty of care, more importantly its being driven by employees themselves who are interested in investing in their own welfare and personal development — catering to this audience is also crucial.

“Offering training on how to take better care of yourself can have a positive impact on traveller welfare, and wellbeing courses are becoming increasingly popular,” says Eric Tyree, Vice President, CTO & Chief Data Scientist at CWT.

“There’s also a steadily growing demand for travellers to be given a license for bleisure activities as well. This might be as simple as allowing travellers to stay the weekend at a destination.”

Part of that wider process also involves more pre-trip medical screening, offered by third parties and TMCs, these involve asking travellers specific questions about their mental health needs or psychological issues around pre-existing conditions.

“It’s not about stopping people travelling, it’s to help better support them and put measures in place while they’re abroad,” says Deborah Avery, Head of International Assistance at Anvil Group. “It’s all about early identification and giving individuals the confidence that they know support is there and in whatever format they may need.”

Stepping up to the mark

With all this groundswell of wellbeing activity, business travel providers are also having to up their game and offer something to the buyer and traveller that caters for this. Some hotels now provide ‘natural’ lighting to help with sleep problems business travellers often face, or airport lounges that have their own wellness initiatives; Amsterdam’s, Schiphol even has its own meditation centre.

“For instance, we’re now seeing customers ask for certain hotel chains to be included in their policies because they meet their particular duty of care and wellbeing standards,” states Vicki Williams, Director of Sales & Implementation at Click Travel.

There is no doubt that incorporating wellbeing into any travel program is a complex issue. It also involves making a wide range of detailed decisions. The challenges are always going to be around cost. There is always going to be a trade-off.

But wellbeing is all about thinking of employees in a wider context. Travel trip ROI, employee retention and welfare all come into play. “Each company has to work out their own balance,” explains Tyree; and there lies the crux of the matter.

Tips on traveller wellbeing

Raise Awareness – Start talking about the challenges and potential issues openly with travellers and encourage them to manage their own wellbeing and healthy routines whilst on trips. Having honest conversations and dialogue with travellers is essential.

Draw up a wellbeing plan – The idea is to bring HR, procurement, buyers and managers together around a single source of truth that aligns company and wellbeing objectives. Clearly articulated they will give direction as to what you want to achieve.

Build flexible travel plans -This can include levels of downtime, either during trips or on people’s return. Details of rest days, training, classes of travel, even sourcing hotels with fitness facilities and healthier eating. Recognise what you can achieve.

Measure everything – If you are implementing a wellbeing policy you need to know whether the changes you put in place make a difference. You also need a baseline set of parameters before you start-up any policy. Data is crucial. So are cost-benefit analyses.

Start with small steps – Creating an all-singing, all dancing program can cause headaches. It’s worth picking a handful of changes you would like to implement when it comes to wellness and see how things improve. It’s a continuous improvement process.