Managing Business Travel During the Pandemic: Candid Discussion with Dr Low Kiang Wei, Medical Director at International SOS

April 2, 202011:06 am2959 views
Managing Business Travel During the Pandemic: Candid Discussion with Dr Low Kiang Wei, Medical Director at International SOS
Managing Business Travel During the Pandemic: Candid Discussion with Dr Low Kiang Wei, Medical Director at International SOS

The global pandemic has forced everyone to stop going out and spend more of their time at home. Businesses are encouraged to send their employees home and work remotely. While some industries find the switch to a virtual environment relatively easy, some others are struggling to manage their business processes and teams, especially if the nature of the work makes it challenging to do remote working. Among those affected the most by the Covid-19 pandemic is frequent business travellers, who might have to find their business trips pending or even cancelled. 

According to a recent poll, the virus could potentially cost the industry $46.6 billion per month as more businesses choose to postpone or cancel their business meetings or events. How would this global health emergency affect frequent fliers’ productivity? HR in Asia sat in a candid interview with Dr Low Kiang Wei, Medical Director at International SOS to discuss further about this issue.

As more countries reported cases of Covid-19 in the last few weeks, international traffic is under scrutiny with more travel bans issued. So how will this affect frequent fliers, in terms of health and business productivity?

The travel restrictions that are currently in place have and will continue to cause cancellations for face-to-face business meetings, events, and conferences – all of which can hinder business productivity.

As travel restrictions continue to evolve, frequent fliers will have to adapt to using alternative, virtual platforms like video and teleconferencing, to maximise the continuance of everyday business.

For business trips that cannot be avoided, frequent fliers should continue to keep their travel itineraries flexible and include additional time for precautionary measures like temperature checks in their destinations, or even travel bans at short notice.

They should also continue to be vigilant – practise good hygiene, avoid contact with anyone who is unwell, and to seek medical care if symptoms develop after their trip.

How has the outbreak taken a mental toll on business or work travellers? And how should they cope with it?

It is important to not underestimate the stress this situation is creating. Despite providing all appropriate preparation and awareness regarding their trip, there is an element of the unknown and situations can change quickly. Disruptions like flight cancelations, travel bans, delays due to more stringent precautions or cancellations for overseas meetings and events can increase traveller stress.

Travellers can feel isolated and vulnerable especially if these disruptions occur mid-trip while they are travelling alone. Media overload and large amount of unverified news can also add to their sense of overwhelm. Those who continue to travel during this period are also likely to be anxious and wary of the potential exposure or increased risk of catching an illness while overseas.

In order to cope with these stressors, travellers who have to go on essential business trips should have 24/7 access to pre-trip information about the apparent risks, actionable advice to mitigate the risks, and a direct line to seek medical, security and psychological assistance whenever they need.

In partnership with Affinity Health at Work, here are ten evidence-based tips to cope with the mental toll of this pandemic:

  1. Research and learn
  2. Accept your worries
  3. Look after yourself
  4. Consider the information you receive
  5. Focus on what you can control
  6. Think about prevention, not avoidance
  7. Think about your impact on others
  8. Focus on the present moment
  9. Be prepared to say ‘no’
  10. Don’t be afraid to ask for help

(The full explanation of the mental health coping mechanisms can be found here.)

What precautions related to the Covid-19 outbreak that companies and business travellers should be taking if they are heading to countries with reported cases of infections?

As of 16 March 2020, Singapore has issued a travel advisory to defer all non-essential travel abroad.

If the business trip is deemed essential after taking into account considerations like the traveller’s medical risk profile, access to quality medical care in the destination, and the nature of the security environment in the destination if incidents like xenophobic attacks occur, companies should consider the following precautions for their travellers, just to name a few:

  • Provide access to reliable, nuanced, information for smart decision making
  • Ensure they know who to contact if they develop symptoms of illness
  • Make sure business continuity plans are current and ready to implement at short notice of restrictions or changes made by the local authorities
  • Implement screening and return to work-policies for travellers returning from affected areas

Some tips for travellers to note is that they must stay vigilant in their hygiene – avoid crowded places, wash hands frequently and avoid touching your face. They need to be aware of the symptoms and take the necessary precautions to safeguard their health, and the health of those around them. This should be supported with up-to-date information about the local situation, and advice on precautionary measures.

In the worst case scenario, the city we are visiting on a business trip is in lockdown due to Coronavirus. What is the best we could do in such a case?

As emergency lockdowns are enacted in a severe outbreak, business travellers who are stuck in countries during an emergency lockdown period should adhere to local regulations and remain in their residences or hotel as much as possible. Avoid going to public places as far as possible, maintain records of their whereabouts at all times and whom they come into close contact with.

To manage and minimise the spread, many governments announce travel restrictions – with no certainty when they will be lifted. What should business leaders do to anticipate the economic impact of this policy?

Business leaders should review their business continuity planning measures to address the economic impact of travel restrictions. In many of the affected countries, non-essential travel bans have been imposed, so employers must take into account several considerations including:

  1. The safety of the employee if the trip is deemed essential to business
  2. The possibility of any corresponding border control, leave of absence or quarantine order that may affect productivity
  3. Communication infrastructure with all employees to ensure their well-being
If international travels are impossible to do during the outbreak, what can leaders do to keep the business running smoothly?

Businesses with international offices should implement standalone operations and processes, and cross-border communications conducted through teleconferences or messaging services. All essential functions of the company should also be reviewed such that overseas offices can operate independently.

About Dr Low Kiang Wei:

Dr Low Kiang Wei is Medical Director for International SOS. He is responsible for clinical governance of all current and new Medical Services projects under the Singapore Division management, as well as ongoing advances in digital projects including telehealth and medical technology solutions in Asia.

Dr Low previously led the team in case management across the Assistance Platform and assists with Medical Services Delivery, including supply chain and staffing. He has a special interest in Managed Care and Telehealth Modalities to improve access to appropriate care.

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