Mental health: Trouble in mind

Do corporates need to do more to support the mental health and wellbeing of their travelling staff?

Matthew Holman, founder of Simpila Healthy Solutions, a consultancy that addresses mental health issues in the workplace, is talking about his experience at work: “I never had anyone come up to me and say, ‘Are you okay? Do you want to take some time off?’ I never had that from any boss.”

Holman, who worked in the travel business for 20 years before a redundancy triggered post-traumatic stress disorder, set up Simpila in order to improve awareness and support for business travellers suffering from mental health issues.

The data for mental health in the UK makes for unsettling reading: one in four adults are affected by mental health issues every year, 49 per cent of work absences occur due to stress-related illnesses, 12.5 million working days were lost to work-related stress in 2016-17, and almost one-third (31 per cent) of UK employees said they would consider leaving their current role within the next 12 months if stress levels in their organisation did not improve.

Basingstoke-based Holman maintains that UK industry needs to pay more attention to its mobile workforce. Stress impacts an employee’s wellbeing and has considerable financial implications for businesses. Mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety, account for almost 70 million days off sick per year – more than any other health condition – costing the UK economy £70-£100 billion per year. In addition, the annual cost of people underperforming at work because of poor mental health is estimated at £15.1 billion, or £605 per employee in the UK.

It pays to keep tabs on business travellers’ wellbeing, says Holman. He has devised a straightforward, anonymous, ten-question Business Travel & Mental Health Survey (surveymonkey.co.uk/r/XH28QZ7) that explores the mental health of business travellers. So far, its respondents have flagged up some worrying issues, most notably:

  • 49 per cent of respondents have either been diagnosed with, or have shown symptoms of, mental illness;
  • Of those who have/had a mental illness, 63 per cent suffered with depression, 44 per cent with an anxiety disorder and 29 per cent with stress;
  • 80 per cent of those who have/had mental health problems have not told their employer;
  • 74 per cent of the companies represented do not have a travel policy that includes supporting mental health.

Repetitive cycles
“During my last year in the travel industry I would spend a week out of every month in the US on my own,” says Holman. “My hotel would be 500 metres down the street from my office and I would work more than my allotted hours before having dinner on my own – all my colleagues were going home to their families – and then I’d go back to my hotel.

“It would just be this repetitive cycle and I was lucky I was pushed out of travel, in many ways, as it gave me the opportunity to look at it from a completely different perspective. There are many business travellers who are stuck in that cycle and it has a major impact not only on their mental wellbeing but those of their family, friends and other people around them.”

Since setting up Simpila two-and-a-half years ago, Holman has spoken to a large number of people in senior positions who travel extensively and he’s discovered that the challenges that they face are “rather scary”. These include combating rush-hour travel on the way to the airport, fretting about check-in times at both the airport and the destination hotel, encountering “overwhelmed” lounges, experiencing long periods of inertia on the flight, drinking and eating to excess (because it’s often free on the flight, in the lounges and at the conferences they attend), jetlag, poor sleep patterns, feelings of isolation and loneliness, and the numerous issues of dealing with clients and colleagues in different time zones.

“There’s this feeling among business travellers that they’re constantly on duty, answering emails at all times of the day, their phones always on… it’s this blue-screen issue,” he emphasises. “I used to have a team in Asia as well as in America and Europe, so I was getting messages all times of the day in different regions and there never seemed to be a defined nine-to-five existence.”

When there were problems on a trip abroad it was, Holman says, a case of: “We care where you are, we’re just not that bothered how you feel about where you are.”

So, what are the indicators for identifying mental health issues and depression in an employee? Well, they include failing deadlines, missing meetings, poor concentration, emotional outbursts, restlessness, sleep issues, social withdrawal, excessive alcohol consumption and loss of interest in tasks.

Addressing burnout
How are travel managers trying to address the issue of burnout or traveller “friction” and how are they encouraging workers to disconnect?

Julia Fidler, global employee experience lead at Microsoft Travel, recommends managers do not ask their employees to go on a conference call straight after a business trip. She also suggests that “bleisure” and “non-work experiences” should be introduced on trips abroad.

“We’ve had discussions at Microsoft recently about a traveller’s itinerary, personalising it and adding things that you might like to see on a business trip,” says Fidler. “For example, going to see a concert while you’re in a particular location or going to a museum or an event.”

Fidler recommends taking the morning off after a long trip: “That should be encouraged. I wouldn’t necessarily say a manager would say that to me, but there’s definitely no issue, as far as I’m concerned, doing that at Microsoft and there’s a feature to take time in lieu.

“I have a young family, so travelling at weekends is very intrusive. I make sure I’ll take that time back,” she adds. “As travel managers we have a responsibility to create awareness of the tools and integrate them into our communication plans. It’s not just about telling someone how to apply for a visa, it’s also telling them how to manage their work time on, for instance, their phones.”

Effortless travel
Raj Sachdave, managing partner at Black Box Partnerships, recognises that, as part of Good Employer Status, it’s the responsibility of people in the industry to make sure we further enhance business productivity and make travel effortless.

“Seasoned travellers in this country have a stiff upper lip attitude. ‘I’ll carry on, everything will be okay and when I get home, I’ll have a glass of wine and I’ll cry,’” says Sachdave, who emphasises that a company’s biggest “asset” is their workforce and TMCs need to pay “more attention” to employees’ wellbeing. “TMCs, from a profile perspective, should have a smarter insight into the persona of the individual, not just their date of birth and passport number.”

Sachdave recommends that TMCs provide business travellers with a chauffeur or taxi service to airports, particularly for early flights. “They should say: ‘Don’t worry, we have a car to look after you, so you can relax.’ That’s the sort of thing where your stress levels immediately go down and it means the employer is looking out for the worker’s interests.

“Travel policies and mandates need to grow up a little bit,” Sachdave adds. “They need to say ‘you know and I know I’m paying all of your expenses and your per diem rate and everything else, but just like when you are at home, there’s going to be some sort of start and finish to your working day.’

“If you look at young tech companies, they say after a trip, ‘Work from home for the rest of the week, we trust you… reacclimatise back into your routine.’”

Laura French, chief people officer at Capita Travel and Events, says corporates should be able to identify those who are living with stress or mental health conditions. “You need to create an environment whereby employees feel they can be open and honest about their mental health,” she says.

French stresses that firms need to invest in having “accredited Mental Health First Aiders who are equipped to support employees, coupled with support statements from leadership; led from the top. These activities could support HR to get closer to employees and, therefore, have better insight into their wellbeing and find appropriate solutions – allowing HR to collaborate better with travel managers.”

She maintains that there should be a wellbeing programme within the travel policy. By setting clear expectations for your employees, they are “more likely to take ownership for how to go about doing their job without feeling they will be judged or reprimanded”.

“PLCs need to go on a training course and realise it’s okay to talk about mental health and wellbeing,” concludes Sachdave. “The biggest muscle in your body is your brain and for some reason we tend to neglect that and concentrate on other parts.”

Three ways to incorporate mental health into your travel policy

  1. Provide staff with the option of not travelling when feeling mentally unwell. This has to be linked closely to HR and line managers having the ability to support the person through recovery.  
  2. Reward healthy decisions while travelling. For example, provide additional per diem allowances for healthy food choices, use of sport facilities, and activities to help reduce stress – cinema, theatre vouchers and local events.
  3. Recognise that travel is lonely. When visiting other company offices, suggest the option of paying for dinner for the traveller and a colleague.

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