Who Decides When Employees Are Fit Enough to Travel Again — And How?

Matthew Parsons


It will be a delicate operation, but with the right systems in place, health checks could prove effective in reassuring employees that it’s safe to get back out there.


For travel managers worldwide, the first phase of the crisis was about bringing staff back home safely. Now it’s time to see who’s ready to go back out.

Checking the fitness of employees used to be reserved for high-risk sectors, such as mining where staff would spend long periods away at remote work camps. But today, nearly every destination can be classified as a hotspot.

“There will be many schools of thought on how to approach this, as there were when we all adapted and enhanced processes after the Eyjafjallajokull ash cloud,” said Jo McQuade, former travel manager at energy company npower. She said travel managers will need to figure out who is going to actually give the green light to travel, with departments such as occupational health also needing to be involved. “It will be interesting to see who is up for taking the responsibility. This is absolutely about being prepared for when the world really does open up,” she added. “The principles the industry has in place to manage duty of care today will need to be enhanced considerably.” However, it’s a question corporations need to be asking now, according to Dr. Myles Druckman, group medical director for health innovation at International SOS. Travel managers may be under pressure to take the lead when monitoring employee health levels before they take their next business trip. “It’s not too early to assess the health of employees,” he said. “We’re already seeing organizations doing it. A law firm was telling us that a judge told them if their lawyer wasn’t in their office by Wednesday, they’d throw the case out. So they’re having to fly cross country to work.”

KEEPING SCORE It might not be too early, but it won’t be easy. Employees may soon find themselves being graded, as Druckman said travel managers will need to set up a “go, no-go” threshold. This will vary between industries and companies, and organizations now have to work out how much risk they’re willing to take. “If you’re a news agency, you’re flying into harm’s way, and the company will be willing to take more risk for you to do your job. There’s not a one-size-fits-all solution — you’ll need to adapt your methodology to the type of work you do,” he said. Automated systems are available that “digest” an employee’s travel itinerary and risk-rate the individual. If there’s a flag, they get an email requesting they take a questionnaire.

Travel managers could ask questions to determine if someone’s at risk from Covid-19. For example, do they have health conditions? Do they have asthma, or heart disease? “These things become new factors in their decision making as to whether they can send that person abroad,” Druckman said.

“You’re going to see the same kind of methodologies for someone going to a high-risk destination,” he added. “And the definition of high-risk is evolving with the pandemic too. We’re actually looking at an algorithmic impact score to help travel managers risk rate the destination more accurately.”

SHARING THE DATA Privacy issues are inevitably going to be raised. Employees won’t want to disclose all of their health details to employers, while McQuade warns the collection of data will pose a challenge. Druckman says health assessments often remain confidential. “It’s more of an approval tool a list of things, have you done these tasks?” he said.

If an employee is flagged as potentially unsuitable for travel, what next? “They’ll either be a detailed questionnaire, or a medical exam that’s done, to ensure someone’s fit to go,” Druckman said, which again is common practice for those companies that typically work in high-risk sectors, sending people to those remote locations or areas that are under-serviced from a healthcare perspective. He added that travelers also appreciate measures such as these. “The objective is to provide duty of care to your people, to let them know what the risks are, what the exposure is,” he said,

“Even before this, if you went to a Malaria-risk country, you’re given all the the advice. Sometimes, people still get Malaria, right? It’s the same concept. Our view is, a travel manager is in a better position having given people advice and direction, than giving them nothing.”

WHY NOW? Druckman believes that during a travel freeze is the best time to plan. “When you start to travel, your staff will feel confident that the company is looking after them, and that people are making the right decisions,” he said. However, many companies are delaying setting up these kinds of checks because nobody is traveling, and no dates set for future travel. They also think they might not even need it, he added.

The liability stakes will also be high, as stakeholders take on responsibility for the travel. They’ll now want to be armed with as much information as possible. “With this crazy disease, you can still, even with best practice, pick it up. Our job is to say, here are all the facts, the risks — and travelers need to accept there’s a chance they might become ill,” Druckman added.

With the prevalent risk concerns likely rolling over into 2021, one wellbeing expert said travel managers should assess potential anxiety of employees. “We are asking people to return to a world where the risks are greater, and the challenge is that these are invisible,” said Matthew Holman, owner of Simpila Healthy Solutions. “We cannot see them with the human eye, but we can see how we are minimizing the potential risks through social distancing and cleaning measures.

“As a travel manager and employer, we want to encourage people to travel, and ensure that all of the tools, data and information is relevant to their personal needs. Now is the time to talk to each traveler as a human, and not apply the same expectations for everyone.”

He argues that those staff who are considering travel should be seen as “corporate athletes”: “They are well prepared, can perform to a high level, and have the time to recover. We do this by listening and providing human support, before, during and after the trip.”

The types of tools travel managers have at their disposal today will determine how effective they’ll be at coaching their organization’s employees to travel in the future. The race is on.

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