Business travel, duty of care and the global pandemic

Employers have a duty of care obligation to protect their employees from undue risk when they are on a business trip.

By Kristian Orispää
Contributers: Sofi Alverstrand, Kjell Wiberg, Elisabeth Gorton, Henrik Rahm, Salla Lind-Kohvakka

Since early 2020, global travel has been severely disrupted by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. But more recently, signs of recovery in the business travel sector have appeared, driven by the further development and greater distribution of vaccinations as 2021 has progressed. However, there are still issues for employers to consider.

An employer’s duty of care

Employers have a duty of care obligation to protect their employees from undue risk when they are on a business trip. Since the coronavirus outbreak, this has become increasingly important. The duty of care covers an employee’s health, safety and wellbeing. The duty is based on legislation, but it is also a moral duty.

For the employer to meet the duty of care, the employer must analyse, for example, the risks relating to travelling, draw up travel policies and guidelines, take out the appropriate insurance, and train the personnel who travel, as well as know the destination the employees are travelling to at any given time. The assessment of risks relating to travel must be a continuous process, as the conditions in different countries may change quickly.

In this article, we will also look at what has changed for employers in the wake of the continuing global coronavirus pandemic.

According to Henrik Rahm, Nordic Head of Employee Benefits Underwriting, “Business travel has been significantly reduced due to the pandemic, and it is still unclear how the shift towards remote work will affect internal meetings, client visits and conferences. The pandemic has also made companies reevaluate their internal travel policies with a focus on the bottom line and the environmental impact. We are expecting a slow return to business travel as many companies continue to operate with essential business travel only, with added layers of executive approval.

“For those who are still travelling it is essential for us to provide the security of the proper travel insurance, making sure that travellers feel safe and comfortable during the journey. From If Login we provide companies with relevant information including travel advice to consider before, during, and after the journey,” he notes.

Analysing country-specific risks

Country-specific risks vary: some are global, while others may be hyper-local in nature. Risks may relate to semi-permanent conditions, such as regional disease risk or climate. These risks are relatively easy to identify and can be effectively managed through careful planning prior to the journey. Other risks may develop suddenly, however, such as changes in the political environment, or because of exceptional or even extreme weather phenomena. The current situation in the destination country should always be checked just before the journey, and, if necessary, the risks and the necessity for travel should be carefully reassessed.

In addition, traffic accidents remain the most significant cause of serious accidents abroad, regardless of the duration and destination of the journey. To that end, many transport-related risks can be considerably reduced by the traveller’s behaviour themself. For instance, wearing a seat belt when required, as well as general alertness and the use of common sense, will almost always bring positive benefits.

Employees can encounter risks

Further to the risks relating to the country of destination, travel safety is also impacted by the suitability of the employee for working abroad. This is influenced, for example, by the traveller’s state of health, language and cultural skills, and previous experience. Occupational healthcare plays a key role in the assessment of the traveller’s state of health.

Regular health check-ups help to identify any health risks and the consequent suitability for travel. Occupational healthcare services can also help by providing the appropriate vaccinations for the journey. 

For some destinations, it is a sensible to carry medication and medical supplies. The employer needs to ensure that their employee knows the special characteristics of the destination, including its culture, climate and political situation. An understanding of the destination’s specific characteristics will help to make the journey smoother and safer.

It is also important to remember safety procedures relating to the work to be performed: employees must be able to perform their tasks during the assignment without endangering their health or safety. Additionally, it must be ensured that employees travelling extensively have the opportunity for sufficient recovery both during and between each trip. The first signs of insufficient recovery include sleep disorders, irritability, withdrawal in social situations, fatigue, loss of energy and a qualitative decline in work productivity.

Global pandemic: added complexity

“Living in a pandemic will probably mean reduced travel in the long term and businesses will have to evaluate the need to travel more thoroughly given that the risk of becoming sick is greater,” says Sofi Alverstrand, Head of Employee Benefits Underwriting at If in Sweden.

“The employer and employee will also have to consider what they are planning to do when they return. This could mean, for example, postponing meeting friends or co-workers for some time after having travelled, to make sure that they do not pass the coronavirus on to others. This is a new consideration, and it will make our travelling more complex.”

What has changed?

Some countries are choosing to close their borders as the coronavirus outbreak enters a new wave and governments are aiming to reduce the number of foreigners entering their borders. Meanwhile, other countries are choosing to open-up as the number of internal coronavirus cases decreases (and the percentage of the vaccinated population increases).

Furthermore, different destinations will have country-specific guidelines, regulations and laws that are based on their current situation with regards to the number of infections in the country at that time. Not all nations are currently practicing the same methods of containment, therefore it is important to carry out detailed research when planning a journey.

At the airport, travellers need to produce sufficient proof of having been (fully) vaccinated, or present documentation confirming that they have recently recovered from the coronavirus. It is important that the employee is prepared to undertake a coronavirus test at the airport, sometimes both upon departure as well as upon arrival. Travellers will also need to check the number of days required for quarantine, which can vary depending on the destination country. Authorities may also require a coronavirus test to be completed while the traveller is in the destination country.

“Due to the pandemic, travel restrictions tend to change both more often and faster than before,” says Kjell Wiberg, Underwriter at If Insurance. “It is therefore even more important today to stay up to date with the restrictions that apply in the country you are visiting, and what restrictions apply when you return home. Updated information can be found on the Ministry for Foreign Affairs’ website, and on the country’s embassy’s website.”

Occupational healthcare plays a key role in the assessment of the traveller’s state of health.

Employers prepare for increased risks

It has been approximately one and a half years since the global pandemic reached Europe, and by now most companies have new travel restrictions in place, including updated risk assessments made to existing guidelines which take into consideration the new business travel landscape.

When travelling, employers should advise employees to follow the advice of local authorities if quarantine measures are imposed, a second vaccination is required or is mandatory prior to travel, as well as other measures that may be required. For example, suspected cases of exposure to the coronavirus can emerge during the employee’s time in the destination country. This can result in having to stay in a hotel room for a prolonged period or include a transfer to a different location for the duration of the quarantine.

It is also important to keep in mind that an employee may become infected with the virus and hospitalised while in the destination country, and consequently may need to remain there for an extended duration. In this case, contact your insurance company without delay to check the relevant insurance cover for your employee.

Guidelines, recommendations, checking status still for some time 

Employees are expected to be vigilant after they have returned from their assignment and abide by existing recommendations. In cases where employees are returning to their home country from a destination where the local authorities have advised against all non-essential travel due to the coronavirus situation, employers should have agreed guidelines in place with regards to self-isolation and quarantine after travelling.

Elisabeth Gorton, Key Account Manager at If Insurance concludes that “It seems as though we will be living with this coronavirus for some time and not all countries have the possibility of vaccinating at a high pace. Travelling in the future will include checking the coronavirus status and vaccine situation wherever we go.”

Risk identification and assessment

  • Weather conditions and climate
  • Internal security and political situation
  • Culture and practices in the country of destination
  • Movement, transportation and traffic
  • Diseases
  • Level of hygiene
  • Personal state of health
  • Information security threats
  • Thefts, robberies and kidnapping
  • Risk assessment as part of the company’s operating culture

Risk reduction

  • Travel and accommodation guidelines
  • Detailed travel plans
  • Communication and contact during the journey
  • Training, guidance and support for employees
  • Collecting and exploiting travel experiences in
  • the organisation

 If a risk materialises

  • High-quality healthcare at the destination and in home country
  • First aid skills
  • Emergency assistance service
  • Insurance
  • Crisis management
  • Communications

Supporting Business Travel

If Insurance offers its clients the possibility to assess the current situation of their travel risk management in cooperation with our experts. If Business Travel Navigator provides a systematic method to review the various aspects of travel safety. Together, we can also make sure that your company’s insurance cover meets your needs, both in terms of cover and services.

As an If client, you will also have access to new tools and features located in the If Login portal, to support your expats and employee’s travel plans.

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