Traveller wellbeing is a topic travel managers were slowly groping their
way towards understanding before the pandemic hit. Now, safeguarding employee mental
health could push close to the top of the priority pile when companies finally
contemplate ending their Covid-induced travel hibernation.
In particular, businesses have to anticipate how they will deal with the
distinct possibility employees may be reluctant to travel, perhaps even to the
point of refusing outright.
“I know there will be
anxiety. We have already had organisations reaching out to us on this issue,”
says Philip Stewart, founding director and head of intelligence for
travel risk consultancy Tapis Intelligence.
“Companies are asking what
measures they should put in place to support staff mentally and physically.
Where businesses can be blindsided is if they think everything will be back to
normal, but that’s not the case. There will be members of staff unhappy with
Employees will have good
reason to feel anxious about resuming travel, according to Stewart. There are
real risks involved.
One is the risk of
coronavirus infection, especially for those not yet vaccinated or living with
vulnerable people. Another concern is the quality of treatment for travellers
who are injured or succumb to a non-Covid illness. Local health systems
overstretched by Covid, especially in their intensive care units, may offer
inferior care compared to their usual standards. Travellers will also have
legitimate fears about being forced into quarantine if rules in their home or
destination country change at short notice.
But on top of all these
concerns, companies need to appreciate that emotionally their employees may be
altered long-term by their experience of the pandemic.
“Return to travel will be
a mixed bag,” says Dr Lucy Rattrie, a chartered psychologist who specialises in
business travel. “Some are desperate to get back on the road and will find it a
positive boost. But a lot will be stressed, especially if they have significant
responsibilities at home. If companies want their people to travel again, they
need to prepare for it but I don’t think many are.”
Stewart points to the
distinction psychologists draw between Trauma with a big T and trauma with a
small T. Big T Trauma is a clear event such as bereavement or being caught up
in a violent incident. Small T trauma is “small events that cause anxiety,”
“You can have an
accumulation of these which also create a crisis. Returning to business travel
is a small T trauma, yet the fear is that companies will crack on and say
“I haven’t sat next to
anyone outside my family for a year but now I’m going to be stuck on a plane
next to lots of people. You’re going from a year of being told that’s a
dangerous situation to being placed in it. Everyone will be experiencing a
number of these small T events and that will build up. Some employees may have
had big T traumas too, like losing a loved one.”
In considering how to handle
reluctant travellers, perhaps the first point to tackle is the legalities. “This
would all depend on whether or not it was a reasonable request by the
employer,” says Elisabeth Fitch, interim human resources director for risk
management provider Anvil Group.
“There is an implied term
in all contracts of employment that employees will follow reasonable
instructions. Travelling for work purposes would normally be a reasonable
instruction. However, it is more of a problem when you consider the current
circumstances and potential quarantine requirements going forward.”
According to the website
Practical Law, published by Thomson Reuters, “in most cases it would not be a
reasonable request” to ask employees to travel to destinations to which their
government forbids, or advises against, travel. Travel which requires
self-isolation at the destination or on return also needs to be taken into
consideration but may not be unreasonable in itself if the trip “is deemed
necessary and appropriate.”
But even if employers have
the law on their side, telling employees to pull themselves together and resume
travel whether they like it or not is a spectacularly counter-productive idea,
according to the experts. Employers taking a heavy-handed approach could
generate high levels of absenteeism and staff turnover, says Rattrie, while
Stewart warns that “you’re creating a stressed, anxious workforce, which can
lead to poor decision-making”.
On the other hand,
companies need their employees to travel, just as they did pre-Covid, even if
the last year has suggested less interaction is needed face to face than used to
Rattrie and Stewart both
urge active intervention to manage the situation, including training employees
to deal with anxiety and self-assess how they are feeling. Stewart has partnered
with a behavioural scientist and the risk intelligence partnership Tiller to
offer workshops and team training aimed specifically at managing employee
The very act of showing
support through training, Stewart argues, will go a long way towards reassuring
stressed travellers. It can also produce a framework to find appropriate
mitigations. These could include policy changes that reduce contact with other
individuals – allowing direct flights or allowing taxis instead of public
transport, for example.
Engaging with anxious
employees could even lead to a review of their role and potential redeployment to
positions that do not require travel. “You need to approach it case by case,”
says Stewart. “You have to understand the employee is not being obtuse or lazy.
They might be suffering psychologically. You have to find ways to encourage
them back again or acknowledge that maybe their lives have moved on and they
don’t want to travel as much in future.”
A typical example, he
says, might be a parent who has discovered during lockdown they are no longer willing
to spend as much time away from their children as during their pre-pandemic
road warrior years.
If nothing else, the
return to work challenge makes it clear that travel management is becoming even
more of a human resources issue than ever before. And that, believes Stewart,
is where travel managers should turn. “I would 100 per cent be reaching out to
HR,” he says. “You need to make sure they have captured this business area and
decided what to do about it.
in the workforce will have experienced some degree of trauma. A large
proportion will adapt very quickly but companies need to be ready to identify
very quickly the signs of those who don’t.”