We know business travel can be bad for mental health and it isn’t hard to see why. Frequent business travellers are often grappling with irregular sleep, unfamiliar surroundings and multiple time zones, all of which can add up to a toxic mix that leads them to be more susceptible to both anxiety and depression than their peers.
Simon Worrell, global medical director at Collinson, says: “I have travelled all over the world on medical repatriations, visiting 40 long-distance countries a year and taking thousands of flights. Even travelling to countries such as Spain means getting up at two in the morning to catch a plane. And you can’t plan for emergencies, which means a lot of the time I don’t know exactly where or when I need to go until the last minute.”
Appreciating the stress involved in frequent travel is not revelatory. Countless studies have driven home the vulnerabilities of business travellers and it’s something travel managers are painfully aware of, too. In a recent survey by BCD Travel, looking after traveller wellness was cited as one of the top priorities, with only cost control and duty-of-care taking precedence. The pertinent question is, what can travel managers do about it?
The short answer is nothing without proper monitoring. Managers can tweak travel policies, upgrade flights and suggest the use of meditation apps, but without a system that tracks what’s working for employees and what isn’t, any wellbeing initiative is likely to flounder.
“It’s easy to make changes to travel policies, like ‘don’t book flights at 5am’ so people aren’t getting up at midnight and going to the airport in the dark; that’s obvious – but what you should be doing first is finding out what level of wellbeing you’ve already got in a company,” suggests Josh Gunn, head of UK marketing at Travel and Transport Statesman.
Tracking mental health
Assessing levels of wellbeing enables companies to flag up vulnerable staff members and track the success of changes they’re putting in place.
“The assessment and tracking of traveller wellbeing is important as it enables people to monitor objectively the extent of improvement and identify what’s causing the improvement,” explains Dr Lucy Rattrie, a chartered psychologist with an expertise in business travel. “In an ideal scenario we want to know that A predicts B, where B is an improvement in wellbeing and A is something the individual or company is doing.
“Likewise, if we can identify the driving forces behind behaviour and mindset change that are specific to different groups of travellers, we can implement effective initiatives and programmes. Unfortunately, at the moment, there’s a little bit of a scatter-gun approach without enough solid evidence-based policy and strategic decision-making behind it,” she adds.
In some ways that’s understandable, says Gunn. Not only is tracking mental health and wellbeing an emerging area, but travel managers are often concerned that they’re stepping into the domain of HR teams in doing so. Then there is the fear of bad news. “One of the big barriers is a concern from senior management: what happens if we learn something really bad and discover some people are really suffering? What we say is,
whatever issues are there, they’ll remain until you start trying to do something about it. You’ll lose people; you’ll fail to attract certain talent if you don’t make changes. And you can improve.”
So, with that in mind, what are some of the tracking tools that travel managers can make use of? At T&T they use employee engagement software Office Vibe, says Gunn. Via targeted survey questions sent to staff on a regular basis, touching on both work and personal life, the system “provides feedback to all our managers so they can see within their different teams which ones are doing well and where we can improve”. Though not solely aimed at business travellers the system does allow companies to segment data by those that frequently travel and those that don’t, so managers can compare and contrast experiences.
More targeted is the Peer Insights dashboard, introduced by American Express Global Business Travel earlier this year. The benchmarking tool tracks positive KPIs (such as direct flights and access to business class seats on international trips) and negative KPIs (such as red-eye flights or time spent away from home) to calculate an overall traveller wellbeing score.
“Organisations can then compare their performance in terms of traveller wellbeing with the scores of anonymised relevant peers,” explains Scott Trainor, global product marketing manager for data solutions at Amex GBT. “Depending on where a company falls within their peer group, they may decide that they want to adjust their travel policies to be more aligned with their peers – while at the same time balancing the costs of those changes. For example, a company may see that their travellers take more last-minute trips than their peers, which would have a negative impact on their traveller wellbeing score. This might be an opportunity to work with team leaders to better manage planning of trips for their staff to allow more advance notice.”
Mobile app Remente, meanwhile, allows both travel managers to track wellbeing but also staff to monitor their individual mental health. That includes a goal-setting capability, explains chief executive and co-founder David Brudo, that allows employees to plan trips “with more clarity and simplicity” to reduce associated stress. “Another popular feature on the app, called ‘Mood Tracker’, allows users to rate their mood so that they can better understand what affects them mentally,” he adds. And “users can also track their sleep and physical activity, which can offer a great indicator of how their travel is affecting their wellbeing”. Employers, meanwhile, are “able to single out mobile workers and compare their mental health status with the rest of the organisation in order to fully comprehend how their staff’s business trips are affecting them mentally”.
Companies will need to think carefully about how best to encourage busy employees to engage in these emerging technology platforms, of course, cautions Worrell. “The issue would be getting employees to engage with the app and input personal data honestly and regularly,” he says. “They would have to be fully confident that their data would not be shared with their employer, as they might be afraid of how this information may be used.”
Travel managers should also remember that they needn’t tackle traveller wellbeing alone, advises Gunn. “If you manage a large company’s travel programme with hundreds if not thousands of travellers you can’t always sit down with them and see how they’re doing. Yes, we advise companies to send surveys to regular travellers, ask for feedback and follow up. But also try to work with the leadership team and line managers.
“Travel managers can’t do this themselves, they need to work with the rest of their company. This doesn’t sit inside the travel policy document, where you make a few tweaks and everybody is happy overnight, it requires a long-term concerted effort.”