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todayonline - 13 days ago

Frequent fliers put mental health at risk with stressors such as disease outbreaks, poor sleep, exhaustion

SINGAPORE — A person’s physical and mental health get messed up a regular basis when he or she travels frequently for work, and the latest coronavirus epidemic is not helping matters presently. Mental health issues are predicted to be one of the top 10 risks that business travellers will face this year. This is based on the latest Travel Risks Outlook 2020 report by global travel risk management company International SOS. Yet, these issues remain an overlooked aspect of business travel, especially in today’s hypermobile work climate. Dr Low Kiang Wei, medical director of International SOS, said that not only does business travel take a toll on physical health, it also affects individuals on a psychological level due to factors such as time spent apart from loved ones, blurred lines between work and after-work hours, and anxiety due to unexpected increases in workload. Navigating travel risks such as natural disasters or epidemics can add on to the stress. Infectious diseases outbreaks are also one of the risks highlighted in International SOS’ report. So far, health officials in China have confirmed more than 31,000 cases of the new coronavirus, with more than 4,800 of them considered severe. The disease, which causes pneumonia in its severe form, has claimed the lives of more than 630 people in China. The virus, also known as 2019-nCov, has also sickened more than 200 people in at least 20 countries. In Singapore, two patients who are warded are under intensive care. Dr Low said of the anxiety that travellers face: “Without appropriate pre-trip awareness, risk mitigation advice, access to 24/7 assistance in case of emergencies such as natural disasters or epidemics, business travellers can also feel unnecessarily stressed about their own safety.” Even with the appropriate preparations, an evolving and escalating situation such as the current coronavirus epidemic can considerably increase a traveller’s stress, he added. “There is an element of the unknown and situations can change quickly. “In these circumstances, it is important to provide access to timely, accurate, verified information. Travellers and assignees can also feel increasingly isolated and vulnerable,” Dr Low said. Dr Edwin Ong, resident doctor at DTAP Clinic in Siglap, said that stress and anxiety levels can rise when faced with the increased possibility of close contact and exposure to infected travellers, especially when heading to countries that have confirmed the presence of the virus. “Business travellers may feel that they are putting their health and well-being at risk by having to travel during this unsafe period, and this could weigh down tremendously on their overall mental health,” he said. WHAT BUSINESS CLIENTS ARE ASKING Ms Wynne Wee, vice-president of Asia Pacific at Workplace Options, which provides employee wellbeing solutions, said that her team has received “a significant number” of requests from companies, partners and individuals in the Asia-Pacific region seeking support during this period. However, she added it is too soon to ascertain if the increase in calls is specifically due to the coronavirus outbreak. Ms Wee said that clients in the management level who ask for support are concerned about how they can support their teams sensitively in these times while maintaining healthy business outcomes. Ms Wee, who is a trained counselling psychologist, said: “As with everyone else, the same fears (about the new coronavirus) holds true for business travellers, but we can imagine how this fear may be elevated for those who are still required to continue with essential business travel. “On the other hand, if they’re told that travel is put off, this will also have an impact on how one feels about their job security which leads to different concerns.” WHAT ONE BUSINESS TRAVELLER IS DOING For one frequent flier from Singapore, Ms Syahidah Y, she has greater freedom as the founder of makeup brand Molly Cosmetics to adjust her business travel plans. With no obvious end in sight to the outbreak, she has made a self-imposed “semi travel ban” and will limit her business travels to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia and Myanmar. Otherwise, she also usually flies to China, Hong Kong, Japan and Taiwan, Japan for work at least twice a month. Her hectic business travel schedules often leave her feeling weary and fatigued. “Work travel is not as glamorous as people make it out to be,” she said. “Sure, there are the comforts of travelling in business (class) or staying in fancy hotels, but in reality, the need to be in ‘work mode’ once you get off the plane, constantly be on your toes and be expected to perform your best for work activities — these affect you mentally.” It can also get lonely, she added. “There’s limited time in a day. After dealing with work during your travel, you don’t have much time to ‘enjoy’.” HOW WORK TRAVEL MESSES WITH THE MIND Dr Ong of DTAP clinic said that the mind and body are interdependent, and neither aspect of health should be ignored. “Often times, a much stronger emphasis is placed on physical health instead, such as sleep interruptions from jet lag, unhealthy eating and drinking and lack of exercise. “However, if left undiagnosed and untreated, mental health issues can fester and worsen in severity, which in turn lead to the very same physical health issues that we are trying to avoid.” For instance, long distance or frequent travel affects the body’s natural circadian rhythm, which is responsible for regulating sleep patterns. Poor or little sleep in turn, causes increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which can lead to the development of worsening of mental illness such as depression or anxiety, Dr Ong said. In a separate 2018 study, commissioned by International SOS Foundation, stress, depression, emotional exhaustion and heightened anxiety were reported in a large proportion of international business travellers. Almost half, or 45 per cent, of the respondents, reported an increase in stress levels. About a quarter reported heightened depression (27 per cent) and heightened anxiety (23 per cent). About 31 per cent experienced emotional exhaustion — a core feature of burnout — on a weekly basis, while 41 per cent reported that their mood suffers during business trips, Dr Low said. Dr Ong warned that unaddressed mental health issues as a result of work travel can create a ripple effect on other aspects of the person’s life, such as work performance, relationships and social life. There are consequences on a larger scale, too. HOW IT AFFECTS BUSINESS COSTS “Medical claims for mental and physical health issues lead to increased costs for employers. Reduced work performance, absence from work and short-term disability can result in decreased revenue,” Dr Ong said. Yet, Dr Low pointed out that only 15 per cent of organisations surveyed in market research company Ipsos Mori’s Business Resilience Trends 2020 include mental health issues in their travel policies. He said: “This figure is worrying, given that there are increasing studies and accounts of business travellers suffering from mental health issues. “Business travel is likely to continue in the coming year, and it is important for businesses to build a holistic and preventive culture of health to protect the wellbeing of their workforce.” WHAT COMPANIES CAN DO Dr Low said that efforts to address mental health in the workplace need to begin at the C-suite, or management level, and trickle down to the frontline employee. International SOS, for example, has in place a range of employee mental health initiatives. It includes the use of an assistance mobile application for employees to receive updates on destination risks as well as briefings on their travel destination, if required from the medical and security teams. This has been especially useful in the current coronavirus outbreak situation. “Travellers are able to ‘check in’ (via the app) to let their employer know where they are, and to allow monitoring of travel patterns. It also allows tailored advice based on their travel to be proactively pushed out,” Dr Low said. “For example, a traveller can be alerted to review or change their routing based on alerts or messages being pushed out. “Managers can also review daily travel patterns to proactively push out information to their staff. As this (2019-nCov) crisis has evolved, so has our health information — it’s key that travellers have access to the very latest guidance to help allay their concerns.” Having updated and useful information at hand can help take away some of the anxiety that travellers have. Photo: Media Raw Stock From this month onwards, International SOS employees in Singapore will also be able to dial in to a helpline for professional counselling or talk about their emotional concerns. This phone service, done in partnership with Workplace Options, is now in operation in its China and Europe offices. Workplace Options recommends that all companies assess their employee’s fitness and suitability for business travel before giving out work travel assignments. Ms Wee said: “Not everyone is cut out for business travel, which can take a huge toll on (a person’s mental health). Having the right fitness, mindset and resilience is important to ensure wellbeing and effective outcomes of business travel.” Dr Low said other practices that organisations can put in place to protect their employees’ mental health include: 1. Having mental health monitoring aside from physical health checks before and after travels Ensure that any post-trip feedback surveys include not just logistics, but feedback on mental health and psychological experience. 2. Build an organisational restitution culture Encourage business travellers to build rest and recovery into their schedule while on the trip and after returning. Enable flexible work schedules for re this may include working from home or taking prolonged weekends. 3. Consider adding employee assistance programmes This may include 24/7 access to at least telephonic emotional support, and wellness programmes. 4. Make the trips as seamless as possible For instance, if they encounter a health or medical issue while overseas and late at night, do they know who to easily call or visit for immediate help?


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