The Covid-19 pandemic has reshaped the world leaving lasting global security implications and new potential mental health hurdles for organised travel

14 October, 2020

The Covid-19 pandemic that struck the world in 2020 has reshaped it, affecting the way we work, travel and interact with our peers. And it will not just be constrained to the first 12 months of the decade with waves of repercussions spreading out long into the future, even past the mid-way point of the 2020s according to some projections.

Its social, political and economic implications vary and are yet to be fully comprehended and felt, amid persisting uncertainty over the way the pandemic will pursue its course and how different countries - and their populations - will respond to it in the longer run.

On top of the complexities that the pandemic has added to managing travel, it has diversely impacted security environments, presenting new challenges for companies' risk managers and other stakeholders looking after their workforce's resilience, both while travelling internationally and at their domestic location, according to medical and travel security services business, International SOS.

The organisation's security experts around the world have put together a whitepaper, providing an overview of the global and regional key trends and their security implications as well as recommendations to best apprehend them in the short-to-medium term. This week they are hosting a webinar with the authors to discuss the subject of workforce health and security: International SOS & Global Security Implications

This was always going to be a marathon rather than a sprint, but it was obvious that once the first wave of infections were suppressed that there would be a growing optimism among populations that the worst was already in the past. While it appeared that Covid-19 was under some control the threat of a second wave was always a concern, a concern that has now become reality in many parts of the world, most notably currently in Europe.

As countries and regions continue to impose global travel restrictions, this has again resulted in significant business and logistical challenges around the world. The threat of the second wave had been a huge cloud over business recovery. Back in Jun-2020, an International SOS Return to Work survey had found that almost three quarters of companies' primary business continuity concern was further disruption from a second wave of the pandemic.

The survey, which analysed responses from over 1,000 professionals responsible for supporting the health, safety, security, and wellbeing of employees, also highlighted a significant concern over mental health with over one fifth of respondents expecting mental health issues to also pose a major threat in the coming year.

The risk to mental health was considered the fourth biggest threat to business continuity in the next 12 months in the survey, a long way after disruption from a potential second wave (73%), country lockdowns (67%) and international border restrictions (57%). But the results revealed that over 17% of those surveyed said that mental health issues had already impacted the continuity of their business operations and this is an issue that will only become a larger problem as the second wave becomes real and infections intensify.

"The issue of mental health potentially being a major threat to business resilience has been brought to the forefront by the Covid-19 pandemic. Home working, isolation and the stress of the unknown is taking its toll on many of the workforce," identifies Dr Mark Parrish, regional medical director at International SOS

The strain of regular travel was already bringing mental health anxieties to many corporate travel department and senior management team. We are becoming increasingly understanding of the pressures of mental health, a condition that is understood to in some way impact around one in four individuals.

Mental health problems can affect the way we think, feel and behave and can range from mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety, to more rare problems such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. A mental health problem can feel just as bad, or worse, as any other physical illness - the only difference is that you generally cannot see it! And when it comes to corporate travel understanding mental health could be key to businesses success; it is after all the right thing to do for staff welfare and well-being on the road.

Travel had increasingly being acknowledged as a trigger point for mental health cases. Regardless of if the trips are short and frequent or long deployments, travel can expose people to unfamiliar and unexpected situations. From feelings of homesick to sensory overload, many situations can trigger stress and anxiety, while tiredness from travel, jetlag and unfamiliar surroundings can also impact well being.

But now we are not travelling and the results are similar.

Rachel Lewis, chartered occupational psychologist, Affinity Health at Work and Birkbeck, University of London, has said even before the outset of the second wave we were "over the peak, but not over the pain." Writing for International SOS she said many employees "would be experiencing higher levels of irritation and frustration with others and deeper negative moods than during lockdown".

Research cites similar findings from individuals working under isolated, confined and extreme (ICE) conditions, including astronauts and submariners. It has been termed the 'third quarter phenomenon' as it was found to begin at the one-half mark and be centred near the two-thirds mark. It is also referred to as the 'winter-over syndrome' ; resulting in a cluster of symptoms that occur after the mid-point of a polar expedition and include sleep disturbance, impaired cognition, negative affect and interpersonal conflict.

Although recent reviews have found little evidence for the 'quarter effect', Ms Lewis highlights that it does support a "difference in emotional experience, and increase in low mood, frustration and conflict in the second half, compared to the first half of isolation".

But, the second wave suggests that for many of us we are not yet over the worst and remain in the first half, while others, where SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes Covid-19) has been constrained are already emerging into the second half. Ms Lewis warns that could further impact mental health. But why, when it could be argued we have got through the worst, does the second half feel harder? Well psychological theory suggests a number of explanations for this phenomenon.

According to Ms Lewis these relate mainly to no longer having a clear goal to work towards ("in the first half of the pandemic, we were motivated by a shared goal to either flatten the peak of the pandemic, or pass the peak"); we are running on empty ("employees are now finding that the impact of working at peak level has taken its toll and that both their emotional and physical 'fuel' is low"); and we are overwhelmed by the 'noise' post-lockdown ("in lockdown, our environmental and cognitive stimulation was reduced as a result of physical restrictions").

Understanding and managing mental health needs was always a challenge, but that has got just a little bit harder for businesses now. Alongside medical and security support, aiding emotional needs is now an essential ingredient in travel risk management and will be one that will need to be especially supported in the recovery for the Covid-19 public health crisis.