· 2 min read · Features

Employers have a duty of care to make business travel stress-free for employees

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As an HR manager, you will be only too aware that stress - and distress - among employees causes impaired economic performance. You'll also be aware of the proliferation of stress in the work place: across the EU, nearly 25% of workers are affected and stress is responsible for 50-60% of all lost days. It's also rated the second most common work-related health problem and estimated to cost the EU 20 billion annually. It's also on the increase.

Stress has many triggers – work overload, job (in)security, work-life imbalance, strained work relationships, feeling undervalued, loss of autonomy and control, poor resources and internal communications – but a little known and under-investigated trigger is business travel.

Business travel is psychologically and physically stressful and, managed poorly, can exacerbate all of the causes of stresses outlined above. Aspects such as duration, frequency, encroachments on leisure time, and the perceived inability to refuse trips without career damage all contribute to sources of stress. Shockingly, general medical claims are higher among travellers, psychological illness claims are three times more numerous and claims from spouses of travellers are 16% higher.

More progressive HR departments and procurement professionals that are involved in travel understand this and no longer base buying decisions solely on price. They create policies that suit the traveller and not just their budget. They are mindful of their corporate social responsibility and duty of care towards employees. They may miss out on short term savings, but they will also avoid making much bigger long-term financial losses.

By taking a more responsible and strategic view of the issues involved in business travel,  and by appreciating and understanding CSR and duty-of-care obligations, organisations can also minimise serious legal and reputational consequences. Following the introduction of the Corporate Manslaughter & Homicide Act in the UK, this is now happening. An increasing number of organisations are now also reviewing their travel policies to ensure high standards of duty of care for employees.

AstraZeneca, for example, has modelled its entire business around improving people’s health, believing that effectively promoting wellbeing leads to a healthier, more energised work environment and increased effectiveness. The company offers travellers access to multi-location medical, pre-travel and security services, round-the-clock security consultants and a tracker service.

 If the world of business travel is new to you but it’s one you would like to know more about and investigate further, then the three-step plan developed by Icarus, which is leading business travel sustainability in Europe, will help you. The plan is ‘audit, analyse, act’.

Rather than go in all guns blazing and making instant changes to travel policies and practices – even when you do have the best intentions of your employees at heart – it makes sense to commission a confidential audit of your frequent travellers first. By doing this, you can track their psychological wellbeing levels against non-travelling employees, and this will provide you with a basis for estimating the potential damage to them. Once you know this, you can also estimate the damage this would cause to your organisation through, for example, reduced productivity or increased sickness or absence.

Only once key stressors and factors are understood should you review your travel policies and practices. This will be where the need for a more strategic and responsible view will come into play. The negative impact of traveller stress does not show up in the travel procurement budget. Experience in other areas has shown that the damaging impact of organisational practices can often be removed, or substantially improved, with little cost to the organisation – but in some cases, cost-benefit analysis may conclude that false economies are being made. Examples include a universal economy-class policy, or requiring travellers to fly indirectly if cheaper than direct flights. As well as changing policy and making other remedial improvements, organisations can make structural and operational innovations to ensure duty-of-care considerations are taken into account throughout the travel process. And finally – and possibly most importantly to you – it’s essential that any initiatives being introduced are always linked to both the human resources department and health and safety objectives for maximum effectiveness.

David Chapple is the event director of the Business Travel & Meetings Show, 8-9 February 2011