DUTY-OF-CARE HAS BEEN A BUZZ PHRASE WITHIN BUSINESS TRAVEL FOR YEARS and it has become even more important over the last 18 months due to a seemingly endless series of terrorist attacks and other geopolitical events.
While the safety of travellers has inevitably been at the front of buyers’ minds, other duty-of-care issues are also bubbling to the surface, including the health and wellbeing of travelling employees and what companies can do to help improve this often neglected side of corporate travel.
There is plenty of evidence to suggest that employees like to travel as part of their job – a survey by corporate card company American Express found that 47 per cent of regular UK-based business travellers enjoy that element, with 76 per cent believing that it helps them to be more effective in their roles.
But that’s not to say that travel can’t be stressful and take a toll on the body and mind that could affect an employee’s performance in a key meeting, as well as having a cumulative impact due to issues such as poor diet and disrupted sleeping patterns.
It’s certainly something that travel suppliers are taking seriously – just look at British Airways’ plan to give passengers a ‘digital pill’ to monitor their stomach acidity and change their inflight dining choices based on this data; or Virgin Atlantic’s introduction of aromatherapy treatments for Upper Class passengers to help deal with jetlag.
So what can buyers do about helping make their travellers’ lives less stressful and healthier when they’re on the road – and make sure they’re in the best possible physical and mental shape during their business trips?
A survey of 250 travel buyers by the Association of Corporate Travel Executives (ACTE) and American Express GBT found that traveller wellness was the fifth most important key performance indictor (KPI) – ranking behind savings, compliance, traveller satisfaction and traveller productivity. This suggests that health and wellbeing is at least on the radar of a substantial proportion of travel buyers – although its importance seems to depend largely on the wider corporate culture and management attitude towards the issue.
Former Astra Zeneca travel buyer Caroline Strachan, who is now managing partner at consultancy Festive Road, says: “Having worked for a company where we had a ‘chief wellbeing officer’, I have seen what a difference focusing on traveller wellbeing can have on the employee. I noted a more engaged traveller workforce when we showed we truly cared about their wellbeing, not just their safety.”
Carlson Wagonlit Travel (CWT) says its clients are now putting greater focus on health and wellbeing. “Organisations need to adapt to an evolving workforce with different ways of working, and this influences how they have to reassess traveller health and wellbeing,” says Geraldine Valenti, senior director at CWT Solutions Group.
Lesley O’Bryan, vice-president and principal at Advito, BCD Travel’s consultancy arm, agrees: “We’re seeing more and more travel managers refining policies and incorporating programmes that focus on improving their employees’ health and wellbeing.
“Frequent travel can take a toll on a person’s psychological, emotional and physical health. It is important for travel buyers to factor in a traveller’s dietary options, physical fitness and personal downtime while travelling.”
In the UK, employers have a legal duty-of-care for their employees wherever they are based or travelling, while the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations mean that companies also have the responsibility of undertaking risk assessments.
Occupational health specialist Marina Waters, managing director of OH Works, explains: “If they are travelling as a result of their job, all of their time spent away from home is the responsibility of the employer. Organisations should have clear policies regarding their responsibility for employee health and wellbeing while abroad as there is a clear duty-of-care and legal responsibility.”
She adds that companies should undertake risk assessments for every traveller to “identify any potential risks and seek to reduce the risks to an acceptable level”.
“The health risks of travelling to Europe may be very different than travelling to Asia or Africa,” says Waters. “The amount of time spent away travelling and the standard of accommodation also has an effect on risk, particularly when considering things such as food poisoning, which can be significant depending on the country being visited.”
There is also the potential liability risk to employers, warns Pip English, global product leader for travel risk management at FCM Travel Solutions. He says: “If a foreseeable risk exists and the employer fails to advise travellers or misrepresents the severity of that risk, then they can be liable for a health-related issue in the same way as a safety and security issue. Examples could be failing to provide adequate immunisation advice for travellers going to a high-risk area of diseases like malaria, cholera or hepatitis.”
For Julie Oliver, managing director of Business Travel Direct, there is also a duty on employers to ensure that “travellers are well looked after, and not under considerable strain and keeping irregular diet, sleeping and working patterns. A good start would be to identify triggers for stress levels that could have long-term health implications and work towards improving things, particularly for frequent flyers.”
Toby Maguire is managing director of Working in Balance, which runs courses to help companies reduce workplace stress. He says it’s important to encourage travellers to take responsibility for their own health – such as staying hydrated on long flights, and making the most of hotel pool and gym facilities to mitigate jetlag.
One of the key corporate relationships when it comes to improving health and wellbeing is between the travel department and human resources (HR). “It’s vital to understand what the company’s HR policies and key objectives are,” says one European-based travel buyer. “Companies can do a lot of preventative work to improve employees’ wellbeing. If we want to retain our staff, there needs to be flexibility from both sides.
“It’s not just about booking the cheapest airline ticket, if that’s going to be bad for the traveller and cause them lots of stress due to the timings or the routing. You might save on the airline ticket, but then the employee could be off sick because you have made them take unnecessarily long or inconvenient flights.”
Festive Road’s Strachan says it is important to establish which departments and managers within a company have responsibility for different elements of health and wellbeing. “HR, occupational health or even a wellbeing group are critical stakeholders for any travel manager,” she says. “My recommendation would be to think through a number of scenarios that might happen and then write a RACI [responsible, accountable, consulted and informed] model for who’s going to do what and then test it.”
As with many elements of business travel that go beyond the purely financial, it is undoubtedly difficult to put hard figures or calculate a credible return-on-investment for a company of having a proactive policy towards employee health and wellbeing. How can this be measured?
One of the pioneers in this field is consultant Scott Gillespie, from T Clara, who has developed the concept of ‘trip friction’, which aggregates data to assess the impact of regular ‘poor quality’ travel.
Meanwhile London-based wellbeing science and technology firm Iamyiam is offering a platform for companies that enables employees to check their state of wellbeing via an analysis of their DNA, and this information is then used to create a personalised activity and nutrition plan.
Experts in the field believe that the most important first step is for companies to take wellness seriously across their entire range of business activities and within their overall corporate culture, which will be reflected both in their offices and the way they organise and buy travel.
Matt Morley, founder of ‘green gym’ Biofit, which emphasises a more natural approach to exercise over the use of complex equipment, says: “Arguably the biggest endorsement so far of this approach to workplace wellness is that tech giants such as Apple, Amazon, Google and Facebook are all designing nature-inspired, eco-friendly headquarters for themselves to first attract the world’s top talent, then retain them and, in the process, extract maximum value from their time by offering them a stimulating, positive environment in which to work.”
While so far the evidence as to how improving travellers’ health and wellbeing increases performance and productivity may be largely anecdotal, there seems little doubt that the advance of technology and science will make it a subject increasingly hard to ignore. In a business sense, it will surely soon become what the Americans like to call a ‘no brainer’.
Practical steps for buyers
FCM’S PIP ENGLISH on questions to ask and steps to take to improve the health and wellbeing element of a company’s travel policy.
• What business class policy should you implement to ensure travellers arrive rested?
• What should the company position be on employees self-driving after long-haul flights, especially when crossing time zones when jetlag is a factor that could increase the risk of an accident?
• Where do travellers go for a single source of truth on health risks and vaccination advice?
• Should extra layers of approval be built into the travel approval policy for destinations with high health risks?
• Put in place a traveller feedback mechanism and listen to traveller HSSE (health, safety, security and environment) feedback about hotels that are included in the travel programme.