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Can Companies Factor Physical & Mental Disabilities Into the Business Travel Equation?


Navigating a crowded airport terminal to catch a connecting
flight can be a stressful situation for any traveler, but for Paul Corgel, it
can be especially challenging. Corgel who is legally blind and has 90 percent
vision loss due to multiple ocular conditions, often must resort to taking
pictures of departure boards and signage on his smartphone and then zooming in
on the image to read them. 

That’s just one of the strategies and workarounds Corgel has
developed to help him manage the challenges he faces while traveling regularly
in his role as an emergency management specialist with the Federal Emergency
Management Agency—a schedule that includes rapid-deployment disaster response
trips requiring him to be at a particular location on just 48 hours’ notice.

“I’ll try to take a quick picture and zoom in on my
phone so I know I’m heading in the right direction and I’m not spending a
couple of hours running around an airport and ultimately winding up at the
wrong gate and missing my flight,” said Corgel. 

The FEMA disaster management specialist was one of several frequent
business travelers with physical or mental health conditions who recently shared
their experiences and perspectives at a BTN Group virtual symposium dedicated
to supporting diversity, equity and inclusion in the corporate travel industry.
 

Understanding the Whole Person

The Covid-19 pandemic has caused employees and employers to
take a step back and look at the bigger picture when it comes to understanding health
matters, whether that means overt or covert health issues and disabilities, and
how they factor into what the company is asking of those workers.

The old adage ‘you have nothing if you don’t have your health’
may be hitting home with companies struggling to find employees to fill open
positions in a tight labor market; or, for that matter, wanting to keep the
high-knowledge workers they already have. They have taken unprecedented measures
to protect worker health, both in the workplace and remote; it’s inevitable that
the focus on health has extended to corporate travel far beyond the traditional
‘duty-of-care’ thresholds that have served travel management for decades.

McIndoe Risk Advisory president Bruce McIndoe said the aperture
is opening regarding what businesses need to consider about employees whether
they are traveling, on assignment or choosing to work remotely in what may
emerge as the age of the mobile workforce as corporations exit the pandemic into
a whole new paradigm for working environments. 

“We need to start to look at the holistic person and not somebody that’s
just getting a ticket on a commercial transport and we’re going to take care of
them,” he said. Going forward, he added, companies will need to consider ethnicity,
religion, disabilities and certain health conditions to engage with the employee
holistically and enable them to work from anywhere, and from any time zone.
“We’re going to be much smarter, holistically, around this incredibly
important asset, which is a person. And how we look at them and how we support
them mentally, physically [and in] all dimensions.” 

Complicating Conditions

During the virtual event, Corgel described the many ways in
which his visual impairment adds complexity to trips. In addition to the
aforementioned tactic for reading airport signs, Corgel must do a significant pre-travel
research to map out ground transport from the arrival airport and find a hotel with
characteristics vital to him, like public transportation and grocery stores
within walking distance. 

“I’m going to Denver fairly soon and have begun to do
that research,” Corgel noted of an upcoming trip. “As of right now, I
can tell you the exact number of blocks I have to travel to get from my hotel
to the emergency operations center where I’ll be working.”

For CLEAR VP of travel partnerships Caitlin Gomez, a major
pre-trip concern is ensuring she has an aisle seat and easy access to bathroom
facilities during flights. Gomez, who had her colon removed in 2017 after
suffering from Crohn’s disease for more than a decade, last year began sharing
her experiences as a frequent traveler with a compromised immune system in a
series of LinkedIn posts. 

“Pre-pandemic, flying was really a challenge for
me,” said Gomez, who despite the difficulties, nonetheless flew once every
three weeks between her home base of New York City and the Bay Area
headquarters of Lyft, for whom she worked at the time as head of corporate
travel partnerships. 

For Gomez, the pressures of those stressful long-distance
trips bookending days crammed full of business meetings led to neglecting both
her mental and physical health—a deleterious effect she didn’t fully realize
until the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic brought that travel to an abrupt halt.

“I never really gave time to myself to recover or put
my health into the mix of the travel schedule,” recalled Gomez. “I
didn’t realize the toll that was taking on my health until we stopped traveling.”

Just as the pandemic served as a wake-up call to Gomez about her own health,
she was optimistic that it also has increased awareness on the part of
corporate travel departments and suppliers about the importance of giving
travelers the necessary tools and accommodations to maintain their own mental
and physical well-being.

“Health is no longer an afterthought, it needs to be in
the forefront. Coming out of Covid, employers and partners will be more
cognizant of that,” Gomez predicted. 

 

Mental Health Matters Gains Profile 

Alongside physical impairments and health issues, deteriorating
mental health conditions have emerged as a major factor impacting the modern
workforce and employers. The World Health Organization estimates that depression
and anxiety lead to $1 trillion lost globally in worker productivity. And that
was the before the Covid-19 crisis. Since then, 75 percent of U.S. workers
surveyed by TELUS International said they had struggled at work due to anxiety
caused by the pandemic and 45 percent of U.S. workers surveyed by Vida Health last
year said they had considered beginning therapy for mental health struggles
during the pandemic. Nearly 90 percent of Vida Health respondents said they had
experienced one or more depression symptoms during Covid-19: loss of interest
in doing things, trouble sleeping, feelings of hopelessness. 

In the UK, a similar study by health insurance company Lime
Group found that more than half of workers surveyed felt they had to hide their
anxieties at work and carry on as though nothing was bothering them. For women,
that number rose to more than 60 percent. Among the TELUS study cohort, 80
percent said they would consider quitting their job for a position that allowed
them to focus more on their mental health. 

Columbia University in 2011 conducted a study that focused specifically
on business traveler health and stress issues. The study linked business travel
to work stress and work stress to increased rates of obesity and cardiovascular
disease. The study projected companies might incorporate stress management into
travel programs for frequent travelers as a strategy to combat pursuant
absenteeism. A 2012 initiative from CWT endeavored to pinpoint the source of stressors
for business travelers with the intent of devising services and solutions that
companies could implement to reduce stressors, including travel policy changes
to provide more on-the-road support rather than cost-cutting on travel that could
result in productivity losses. 

Travel after Covid-19 has leaned hard into the traveler
support over cost-cutting measures—especially as most companies have yet to
recover significant business travel volumes. But as travel resumes in earnest,
it may be critical for companies to get specific about mental health issues
that travelers may experience on the road and what company expectations are of
business travelers struggling to cope with increased anxiety or depression.

VP strategic partnerships for Travel Insured International
and frequent traveler Isaac Cymrot, who has dealt with anxiety and depression
since he was a preteen, emphasized that it is critical for companies to treat mental
health issues the same as physical health issues. Cymrot described himself as “open”
and “gregarious” and said he “loves interacting with people”
and “getting up on stage.” But, he added, there are times when he’s
not in a mental space to do that work—just like when others might not be in a
physical state to do that work. 

“Regardless of what your symptom is or the disability
or however you want to classify it… you need to have that permission to call in
sick,” he said. But given the intangible nature of mental health, employers
need to be explicit that mental health is as important as physical health, and
communicate that to business travelers. Without that permission, he said, the
mental health issues can get compounded.

“There’s that added pressure that I can’t [be sick
because] I’m traveling on somebody else’s money, and I have responsibilities. When
you have anxiety and depression, I don’t know that I can put into words how
crushing it is and how that situation actually just makes [your anxiety]
exponentially worse,” he said. 

Supply-Side Support

Corgel cited Amtrak as a positive example of how suppliers
can get in front of accommodating individual needs. He praised the rail
provider’s booking tool, which asks travelers early in the booking flow whether
they will need any special assistance and, if so, includes follow-up questions regarding
that traveler’s specific requirements. 

“Getting that assistance up front, rather than me
having to dig through the back end of a booking system or a reservation system
to try and get that assistance as an additional step in the process,” eliminates
significant time and stress from the travel process, Corgel said.

The FEMA disaster management specialist urged other end
suppliers and online booking tools to offer similar capabilities for travelers
to identify any special needs and save such information to their profiles so that
they’re applied by default for all bookings. 

Gomez echoed the potential of in-booking flagging tools to offer
much-needed peace of mind to travelers with special needs, citing the ability
to select a plane seat close to a bathroom and ensure bottled filtered water is
provided in a hotel room as two functions that would be particularly helpful to
her personally. 

“These are things you don’t think about until you
actually need them,” said Gomez, urging employers and suppliers to be
cognizant of what could go wrong for travelers with health or mental conditions
and try to head off potential pitfalls—striving to offer a seamless experience
that enables travelers to devote their full energies to conducting
business.  

“Think about what you can do to expedite the travel
process and relax the trip portion so that travelers can really focus on what
they’re going to be traveling somewhere for, and not how they’re going to get
there,” advised Gomez. 

McIndoe sees a future where mental and physical health, different
abilities and other aspects of the “whole person” could become part
of the employee profile and factor into travel bookings from the get-go. This
would allow travel agencies and suppliers to have access to detailed accommodation
information based on physical and mental health issues that may affect the
individual trip—and make those adjustments upfront.  

“Given where we are with privacy… all of this is
predicated on the employee’s choice to disclose,” he said, but the push to
engage holistically with employees and deliver the right workplace solutions
for them is now more than just a concept—more workplaces are looking at it as a
necessity. Delivering on that concept in the managed travel space would be an
industrywide effort across travel program administrators and suppliers if they
so choose to take it on.



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