Should business travel really be HR’s problem?

Since Covid, HR teams have become more involved in planning business trips. It’s all part of a greater focus on protecting employee wellbeing
Businesspeople on train

Business travel has returned to more usual levels following the removal of Covid-19 restrictions, but are companies doing enough to look after their employees’ wellbeing when they take trips for work? That’s the question HR teams now need to answer as they grapple with issues related to the return of domestic and international business travel. 

Ongoing health issues (including long Covid), anxiety about meeting new people, increased caring responsibilities and environmental concerns must now be considered, far more so than pre-pandemic.

Research from American Express Global Business Travel (GBT) shows why HR’s role here has expanded. More than half (55%) of business travellers say their wellbeing suffers when they travel too frequently, and seven in 10 (71%) even admitted they’d leave a role if they felt their wellbeing wasn’t sufficiently supported while they are away for work.

Why is this HR’s problem?

HR expert and author Teresa Boughey says that modern business travel policies must commit to employee wellbeing. “It’s important to balance the benefits of face-to-face meetings with the disruption and potential trauma that people may experience because of travelling,” she explains. “Employees need to be empowered to make travel decisions that are right for them.”

Sophie Bryan is founder of consultancy and training organisation Ordinarily Different. She agrees that a balance needs to be struck and advises HR teams to work alongside travel managers to provide guidelines, training and resources to promote responsible practices. “HR should recognise the impact of travel on mental health, and support employees in managing stress and maintaining work/life balance during trips,” she adds.

It’s important to balance the benefits of face-to-face meetings with the potential trauma that people may experience

The need for a coordinated approach might increase if the American Express GBT research is anything to go by. It also found that 42% of the companies in its survey plan to increase their business travel in the coming months, with 68% planning to ramp up spending in this area by 50% or more relative to their current levels.

And while 79% of businesses say they have started putting greater focus on employee wellbeing when travelling over the past two years, experts believe there is still much more to be done on the HR front.

Jarir Mallah is HR manager at language-learning service Ling App, which has more than 50 employees. He suggests that following the resumption of travel after the Covid lockdowns, many firms need to update their HR policies’ wording and the liabilities covered. “Everyone will need to become more aware of the mental, and sometimes physical consequences, of travel,” he argues. “HR should have an open-door policy for employees to discuss any hesitations over company travel. They should be involved in the creation of any travel policies either through a forum or survey.”

What does the law say about business travel?

There are also many legal issues to be considered by CHROs and their teams. Yvonne Gallagher, employment partner at law firm Harbottle & Lewis, suggests that an individual suffering “substantial long-Covid symptoms” may be deemed to have a disability, given that by now these symptoms would likely have lasted longer more than 12 months.

“Obligations to make reasonable adjustments would apply,” she advises. “If an individual is unfit to travel or it appears that travel – particularly long-haul – will worsen symptoms, then an employer should consider whether a reasonable adjustment can be made in the form of allowing meetings to take place remotely rather than face-to-face.” 

She explains that while it is permissible for employers to consider the benefits of in-person attendance, they shouldn’t be seen to apply “hard and fast rules about travel where disability may be present”. A disability could also be relevant when it comes to the needs of an employee’s family member, she says. 

Of course, if an employer believes that an employee is in breach of an obligation to “obey their employer’s reasonable directions”, HR’s involvement could be critical. This would apply, Gallagher adds, if the employer has been clear about the need for business travel, can show that it is reasonably necessary, and is not seen to be behaving unreasonably in scheduling travel for employees.

These days, HR departments are also more likely to face employee concerns over climate change and may feel a duty to mitigate it. This could be “put forward as a protected belief for the purposes of the Equality Act”, Gallagher explains, although she stresses this is yet to be tested by way of a legal judgment.

Why firms need a new approach to travel risk

Other relevant considerations for HR might include whether it is realistic to ask LGBTQ+ employees to travel to parts of the world where they may face discrimination.

This is where Ema Boccagni of global mobility expert ECA International says risk assessments must come in. These should consider the full risk profile of the traveller, including aspects such as age, sex, ethnicity and any underlying health conditions. 

“Whether business travel sits under HR, operations or somewhere else entirely, it is essential the two disciplines share a strong relationship,” she argues. “If the two are not working together in a concerted way, the efficiency of planning business travel is likely to be negatively affected.”

One further way for HR to demonstrate a commitment to compliance is the introduction of a proactive risk assessment strategy framework, ISO31030. Chris Job MBE, director risk management at Healix, says this is “the world’s first ‘best practice’ benchmark for travel risk management”. 

He concedes that not all HR departments plan corporate trips, especially in larger companies with dedicated travel teams, but he acknowledges that HR’s role after the Covid crisis has become more entrenched in ensuring employee safety outside the office. 

“By demonstrating compliance with the ISO’s end-to-end guidance, organisations can show that staff welfare and safety throughout the trip is the number-one priority,” he says. “This can go a long way in allaying any pre-travel concerns and building employee trust.”

Job advises HR professionals and travel managers to combine their data for a more individualised travel risk assessment. The specifics of long-term and high-risk business trips, such as location and itinerary, should be combined with employees’ profiles, including their medical considerations.

“HR leaders should involve employees by asking them about their key concerns before an assignment,” Job adds. “With a personalised, accurate and interactive travel risk strategy in place, employees know that their company is doing its utmost to protect their health and safety and mitigate any threats associated with business trips.”