Traveller safety for the mobile workforce

Industry Voice
Keeping the mobile workforce safe throughout 2020

James Bird, Security Director, Intelligence and Operations at International SOS, looks at the year ahead in travel risk, and explores what employers need to do to look after their travelling employees

With travel increasingly being the business norm, and organisations looking further afield than ever before for growth opportunities, it is no wonder that business travel is expected to grow to £1.3 trillion in annual global spend by 2022. Adding to that, business conducted face to face is 34 times more powerful than digital exchanges and good news for many international business travellers (IBTs) who enjoy getting out of routine. But the investment in travel could be at risk if organisations and their travellers are not prepared for the potential risks, ranging from the impact of geopolitical instability or cybercrime to mental and physical health. 

Key risks 2020

Instability, unpredictability, rapid change and escalation are the key characteristics of many incidents in our modern world. In 2019, 51 per cent of business decision-makers believed that health and security risks increased, and looking to the year ahead, almost half (47 per cent) anticipate that risks will continue to rise, according to our 2020 Business Travel Resilience Study. The three top risks that are most likely to cause changes to travel itineraries in 2020, identified by the Travel Risk Management Council, are:

  • Mental health – this will increase in importance in 2020. However, only 15 per cent of organisations include mental health issues in their travel policies, according to the survey.
  • Cybercrime – identified as a major risk to security.
  • Geopolitical shifts – identified by the experts as a top risk; 52 per cent of the survey respondents believe civil unrest and political changes will be the main reason for changes to travel.

Mental health

Visiting a new country, having face to face contact with clients and colleagues and experiencing different cultures obviously has benefits. However, international business travel can also have a major impact on employees’ physical and psychological health. Employers need to be aware of these and have mitigation measures in place to protect their employees and to fulfil duty of care obligations. This is not surprising when you consider that being away from home can disrupt normal routines, including healthy eating patterns and regular exercise. 

Our psychology of business travel research found that only 40 per cent of international business travellers reported having a good work/life balance while abroad. So, it’s perhaps not surprising that our research found that one-quarter of business travellers experienced mental health issues which were more prevalent than normal. 

Our findings also revealed that there is a lack of provision in terms of mental health support for mobile workers. Only 21 per cent of business travellers surveyed said they were offered mental health support, and just 25 per cent had access to wellness programmes. This lack of support is not just detrimental to employees and their wellbeing but can also hurt the business’s bottom line. 


Less than one-third (31 per cent) of organisations include cybersecurity in their travel policies, despite the fact that the threat of cyberattacks and hacking when travellers are in different locations is increasing. Just think of the number of connected devices, hotspot locations, and bring-your-own-device policies. These new digital trends create more cybersecurity vulnerabilities for business travellers and will only increase as a reliance on technology becomes almost unavoidable.

Given the popularity of ‘bleisure travel’, or travel which combines business and leisure, across all generations, this may also give rise to business travellers’ tendencies to overshare information on social media platforms and compromise their own security, and potentially their organisation’s.
But when it comes to cybersecurity, this needs to be a joint effort between employers and employees. There are simple measures that can be taken, such as ensuring that software on devices are up to date and enabling multi-factor authentication for online accounts prior to travelling, and business travellers should always run anti-virus scans to remove any trace of potential malware. Common-sense precautions go a long way. When travelling, for example, employees should be aware of the hazards posed by unsecured WiFi networks and of operating laptops and phones in public spaces, where confidential data or information could be visibly exposed. 

From a company perspective, employers need to work with their employees to make sure they have the right training, policies, procedures and preparedness from a cybersecurity perspective. This is to ensure that they are fully equipped to mitigate any threat in the digital domain.

Employers need to have mitigation measures in place to protect their employees and to fulfil duty of care obligations

Geopolitical shifts

There is a general sense of instability, unpredictability and speed of change in the coming year, making geopolitical shifts one of the top trends that decision-makers believe will cause business travellers to change their itineraries. The types of issues anticipated by the Travel Management Council in 2020 are:

  • Increased terrorism.
  • Elections and associated instability from political changes.
  • Trade wars.
  • Relations between influential states changing.

Acts of terrorism, potentially violent social unrest and the associated disruption are all cited as risks facing travellers on the ground. As such, accurate forecasting and timely updates and analysis informed by subject matter specialists, linked to a response capability, will help inform organisations’ risk management preparation and response cycles to help enable secure and informed travel.

At the end of the day, responsibility does not start and end with booking flights and accommodation – instead, there needs to be a fully integrated organisational process with appropriate policies and procedures, informed by timely and actionable intelligence, supported by the relevant security and medical expertise wherever appropriate, be that before, during or after an assignment. ■