Business travel, working abroad and mental health: a wake-up call

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More roles now involve business travel with increasing risks and stress for employees. Julian Eyears, medical director of occupational health at International SOS, offers expert advice for employers.

As workplace mental health issues rise on the corporate agenda, it is increasingly important for organisations to consider the wellbeing of their mobile workforce. From short-term travel to longer term expatriate assignments, pressures can be particularly acute for the mobile workforce.

Understanding stress factors, identifying symptoms of depression, among other mental health issues, and implementing strong procedures to mitigate mental health risks, are all important in helping organisations protect their mobile employees from falling victim to workplace stress.

It is also important that businesses do not underestimate the impact a mental health issue may have on an individual as well as a business, both from a legal and business resiliency perspective. In the UK, 11.5 million working days were lost due to work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2015-16, and accounted for 37% of all work-related ill-health cases, and 45% of all working days lost (HSE, 2016).

As Health and Safety regulators increasingly require employers to manage stress, it is crucial that businesses start to address mental health in the workplace in a consistent and effective way.

Business travel stress factors

Business travellers make up over one third of the total global workforce and are exposed to some of the most common work-related stress factors, including sudden and unexpected workloads, rapidly-changing events and blurred reporting lines and responsibilities.

On top of these, they face additional stress factors unique to the nature of their work, including:

  • Jet lag
  • Poor sleep and a poor diet
  • Diminished peer support
  • Severance from home and family
  • Trepidation to speak about concerns in case it negatively impacts the perception of their ability to carry out their job

And the list is constantly evolving. In the current global environment, business travellers are also faced with a perception of heightened travel and security risk (Ipsos MORI, 2016).

Furthermore, as organisations increasingly look to expand their global footprints, business travellers are often required to pass through territories that are alien to them or have a higher risk rating than their home country. International SOS has produced a travel risk map for 2017 to show the risk level in particular regions.

Mental health symptoms

One of the most common questions we get asked from organisations is how to identify mental health issues among their workforce, and particularly depression. While the effects of stress and depression are unique to individuals, there are some common signs that may be evident:

  • Impaired performance: Failing deadlines or missing meetings, uncharacteristic emotional outbursts, poor concentration and resisting work or tasks.
  • Other reliable indicators: Restlessness, sleep issues, loss of interest in tasks, social withdrawal, emotional liability, possibly excessive alcohol consumption, and a feeling of hopelessness.

Implementing strong procedures

The benefits of implementing procedures to mitigate mental health risks among business travellers outweigh the costs, and organisations are increasingly recognising this. Furthermore, employers have a duty of care to ensure the safety and wellbeing of their employees – both physically and emotionally – and organisations that fall short of this can face prosecution and heavy fines if a judge believes management has failed to protect the wellbeing of its staff.

To help employees deal with workplace stress, businesses should consider implementing the following:

  • Employee resilience training: to teach employees how to recognise stress factors in their lives and deal with them in a calm and effective way
  • Employee wellbeing programmes: to teach employees how to reduce their levels of stress, such as eating healthily and exercising
  • Employee assistance programmes: run by third parties that supply a confidential counselling service for employees to discuss a range of issues, from general stress at work to marriage problems at home
  • Regular employee surveys: to identify recurring stress-factors and trends

Specific to the business traveller community, HR departments should ensure all employees take a pre-placement medical assessment prior to travelling to make sure they are not at risk of becoming depressed, developing chronic anxiety or other medical condition. Supporting workers abroad with regular catch-up calls can also be helpful as it allows adequate rest between assignments.

Long-term assignments

Moving to a foreign country can be a stressful experience and a significant number of assignments are impacted each year due to the mental health of the employee or a member of their family.

Organisations sending employees on long-term assignments should have in place emotional and wellbeing support that is appropriate to the region. To identify the level of support that may be needed it is important to consider barriers such as distance and time difference, diminished family network support and in-country medical support.

For instance, counselling is not readily available in some Asian countries, while mental health problems are stigmatised in others, meaning there are little or no medical facilities in the mainstream medical system.

Julian Eyears is medical director of occupational health at International SOS, travel and medical security company


Health & Safety Executive, Work Related Stress, Anxiety and Depression Statistics in Great Britain 2016

The global mobile workforce is set to increase from 1.45 billion in 2016, accounting for 38.8% of the global workforce, to 1.87 billion in 2022, accounting for 42.5% of the global workforce, Strategy Analytics, Global Mobile Workforce Forecast Update 2016-2022

International Travel: Risks & Realities: The New Normal for Business, an Ipsos MORI research study conducted among 1,119 business decision makers across 75 countries.  Research was conducted online using representative panels in the period October 6-26 2016.

International SOS & Control Risks Travel Risk Map 2017

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