29 January 2020
International travel increases risks for lone workers and employers are just as responsible for keeping their staff safe when they are travelling for work as they are in the regular confines of the workplace, says Mathew Colley.
LONE WORKING, by its very nature, brings with it a plethora of potential risks - and in turn, additional considerations need to be made to ensure the safety of those at the coalface.
But when you throw overseas travel or field trips to unfamiliar locations into the mix, this list of potential hazards - and the considerations that have to be factored in to control them - soars.
Language barriers, jet lag, lack of local knowledge, cultural differences, unfamiliarity with transport systems, varying time zones and severance from family are just some of the myriad reasons workers may find themselves in a far more vulnerable position when travelling; whilst more physical threats in the form of terrorism and kidnapping, as well as issues associated with political instability, cannot be ignored when workers are sent abroad on behalf of work.
It is understandable that workers tasked with travelling for corporate conferences, business meetings or fieldwork abroad may feel uneasy about their safety. And that’s before we also factor in that they’re likely to be carrying important documents, expensive digital devices, credit cards and cash, making them prime targets for assaults and thefts.
Much has happened in the world of lone worker protection over the past 15 years, and with an estimated 8 million lone workers now in the UK alone, awareness of those who spend their working lives alone, remotely or in potentially vulnerable situations has been heightened greatly. As such, the solutions and services available to keep lone workers safer have evolved beyond recognition, along with the acknowledgment and actions of employers who are recognising their responsibilities for the physical safety and emotional wellbeing of their staff.
However, once a worker steps outside of their traditional workplace, these systems and protocols all too often go out of the window.
Regardless of whichever far-flung corner of the world they may find themselves in due to work, their safety remains the responsibility of the employer. While there remains ‘grey areas’ over duty of care within the vast umbrella of lone working as a whole, an employer will find out soon enough that if something happens to their worker whilst away on a business trip, the blame for failing to put adequate systems in place to suitably protect them will land firmly in their lap.
So, a member of staff has been sent to an international networking conference to meet potential new clients. Which hotel are they staying in? How are they travelling there? How are they getting to and from their accommodation to the event? Who in the company even knows which city they are in?
When will anyone in the company know if something goes wrong. And, once they do, are they in a position to get their colleague help?
Systems in place
Just as employers are realising how imperative an efficient lone worker protection system is to monitor, manage and respond to their lone working staff going about their daily roles, they also need to implement systems, policies and procedures that extend this level of support and security when they are travelling for work.
A centralised system that allows travellers to record their departure, flight, arrival, accommodation and itinerary details, ensures that designated staff can quickly and easily contact the lone worker and escalate alert procedures, if needed, such as getting them safely out of an area if a local situation arises. It also encourages good practice and embeds a culture of staff automatically compiling comprehensive details of their working itineraries and travel plans that are easily accessible to colleagues.
But, while a generic company-wide travel policy and lone working system is an important start, it is the tip of the iceberg. And, just as there can be no such thing as a ‘one fits all’ lone worker policy for all companies (due to the vast variables involved in job roles, industries, workforce demographic etc among lone workers), the same can be said for international business travel.
Individual risk assessments need to be carried out for overseas trips which take into account the countries staff are being asked to visit - and the risks associated with them. The risk profile of Sweden would look very different to that of Saudi Arabia, for example.
According to safety and security expert, Chris Phillips - who travels the world representing the UK Government as a Counter Terrorism expert and advises companies about their responsibilities for staff travelling for work - there are 300-400 British citizens taken hostage or kidnapped around the world every year, highlighting just how important it is that companies are aware of the security risks of the locations they are sending their staff - and how robust their policies need to be to ensure their safety.
This awareness also needs to extend to the increased risk of online fraud and data theft faced by staff on business trips abroad - especially when they are likely to be tired from travelling and in locations unfamiliar to them, causing them to be less alert to their surroundings.
Although cyber threats are not dictated by geography, the risk increases when workers are travelling due to company information more frequently being accessed via mobile devices, often on free or public Wifi networks. The harsh reality for any employee who travels for business (particular the less tech savvy) is that computing activities through open networks using these mobile devices, such as laptops, smartphones and tablets, is just not safe.
Technology has enabled workers to remain productive remotely, but its evolution has also created new ways for hackers to infiltrate systems that had otherwise been secure. And companies who have failed to provide effective staff training about cyber security, without regularly reinforcing digital security policies relating to travel, must shoulder much of the blame.
It is a mistake, potentially a costly one, for organisations to consider only what’s happening within their own four walls when it comes to cyber security, which is why online security awareness and training is so important to mitigate the threats posed by remote work.
Another important consideration for those employing lone business travellers is the mental health and wellbeing of their mobile workforce.
Business travellers are estimated to make up around one third of the total global workforce, and whether it be short-term travel or longer, further flung assignments, pressures for these workers can be particularly acute.
As well as being exposed to a number of common work-related stress factors, such as unexpected workloads and rapidly-changing environments and events, there are additional factors at play for travelling workers, including poor sleeping patterns and diet, lack of communication with colleagues and separation from family and friends.
A hotel room on the other side of the world, isolated from loved ones and without regular contact with work HQ, can feel like a lonely place.
It is every company’s responsibility to understand these stress factors, identify symptoms of staff suffering from work-related stress, and implement strong and effective procedures to mitigate the risks.
But, while there’s no question that companies are becoming more aware that the mental health and wellbeing of their workforce is paramount, token gestures by employers to show workers they care does little to really protect their welfare.
A holistic, integrated and proactive approach, where organisations genuinely account for the human factors that can affect their workers whilst travelling, and then take effective action to empower and engage them, is the key.
Employee resilience training, which teaches workers how to recognise stress factors in their lives and deal with them in a calm and effective way, or wellbeing programmes, that encourage healthy living and exercise to combat stress, are a starting point.
But awareness is not the be all and end all. It is the responsibility of those in charge to create cultures where staff are instinctively aware of their surroundings, feel a sense of company belonging wherever they are in the world, and comfortable raising concerns without fear of losing their jobs.
Too many companies provide the lip service without backing it up with action.
The benefits of keeping a mobile workforce safe and secure - both physically and emotionally - wherever they are in the world far outweighs any costs of implementing the systems and procedures to do so. A happy and healthy workforce is a productive one. And that’s surely in the best interest of everyone concerned - at home or away.
Mathew Colley is sales and marketing manager at LONEALERT. For more information, visit www.lonealert.co.uk