The risk to the global workforce has reached its highest level since 2016, according to the findings of International SOS's 'Risk Outlook 2021' report.
The outlook reveals findings from the Business Resilience Trends survey of over 1 400 risk professionals across 99 countries, carried out by Ipsos MORI. It also brings together insights from the Workforce Resilience Council and extensive International SOS proprietary data.
Ahead of the survey, International SOS predicted five risks for the global workforce, namely that ecopolitical turbulence will exacerbate tensions, civil unrest and crime; that pandemic-borne crisis management teams will redefine duty of care practices; that the growing “infodemic” will increase demand for trusted sources of health and security information and advice; that mental health issues will be a primary productivity disruptor; and that a singular focus on Covid-19 will create risk blindspots.
Top findings from the survey, however, indicate that the workforce risk is perceived to be at a five-year high and that this is expected to increase in 2021. Around eight in ten risk professionals believe that the health and security risks faced by the workforce increased this year – specifically for domestic employees (85%), assignees (81%), students and faculty (80%), business travelers (79%) and remote workers (77%).
Around half of the risk professionals believe this will increase further next year, a concern which is most acutely felt in Asia, especially among those responsible for assignees (60%) and business travellers (60%).
Respondents from the US were most likely to report an increase in risk (91%), the survey found, noting that this is “alongside a degradation in trust in local governments and health bodies”, which is seen as a key challenge for a third (31%) of risk professionals surveyed, and most acutely felt in the Americas (40%).
For business travelers alone, the statistics follow a low in 2018 (47%) and the previous high in 2016 (72%), when terror attacks in locations previously considered safe may have been front of mind.
However, International SOS security director for intelligence and operations James Bird tells Engineering News that, from an organisational perspective, organisations or companies will need the tools to monitor developments, received timeously, and to have these validated to "help them keep abreast of information and breaking developments to notify staff and keep their staff safe.
In terms of mental health and the mental health impacts of the pandemic, he advises that considering that "mental health issues (like stress and anxiety around the ability to pay bills, for example) will be a primary productivity disruptor for many organisations", organisations can integrate mental health management programmes as part of employees' broader well-being policies, while elevating mental health concern support mechanisms "to help manage concerns from their staff".
International SOS group medical director Dr Neil Nerwich explained that the Covid-19 pandemic had "created a tripartite of crises, with public health, geopolitical and economic crises all impacting the workforce and business on a global scale”.
He lamented that this had been exacerbated by an “infodemic” in an “increasingly complex world environment”.
While the news of a potential vaccine is considered positive, Nerwich warned that “organisations will need to go through an evolution in their duty of care provisions”.
“Just as 9/11 changed the way employers saw their duty of care with respect to security issues, so the pandemic is destined to have a lasting change to employer approach to employee health threats,” he elaborated.
From a security perspective, however, Bird highlights the importance of organisations having access to timely, validated and a-political assessments to notify of significant incidents and how these incidents are likely to impact the organisation over the short- to medium-term "to help business decision-making and risk managers paln and get their programmes and mitigation measures in place to manage those risks for their staff".
From a logistical standpoint, less disruption in 2021 will be likely as the successful roll-out of potential vaccines could potentially help to manage some of the disruptive threats. However, he warns that there will still be "some significant logistic disruptions at various points throughout the year" as outbreaks are still likely to occur in various locations, which could also impact on employee productivity.
Additionally, the pandemic has also triggered board level decision-making on health issues, as well as increased the need for real-time expert medical guidance and organisational responsibility for employee wellbeing – including those working from home.
As organisations strive to get back to business operations, Covid-19 is considered to be the prism that most other risks will be seen through, Nerwich explained, noting that “perceptions of traditional health responsibility need to be aligned to global best practice and, as such, the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals will come into greater focus”.
He added that, as travel progressively opens again to support the recovery of the global economy, “this will need to be done safely and sustainably, tackling the issues of the traveller’s wellbeing and confidence”.
2021 PRODUCTIVITY GAP
The majority of risk professionals surveyed believe infectious disease (including Covid-19, Malaria, Dengue, Ebola, Zika and others) will cause a decrease in employee productivity in the next year, with one in three respondents (apart from those responsible for students and faculty) anticipating mental health issues to also contribute.
This rises to 43% among those responsible for students and faculty surveyed.
However, in stark contrast, the outlook states that the Workforce Resilience Council experts predict that mental health issues will overtake Covid-19 next year.
Other risks also fell greatly behind as a concern, including country risk rating, transport concerns and security threats. Those responsible for business travellers surveyed, cited geopolitical threats (30%), civil unrest (25%) and security threats (32%) notably less than last year (52%, 52% and 68% respectively).
International SOS security services group director Mick Sharp said “the findings have uncovered a disconnect and a potentially business threatening level of Covid-19 myopia”, alongside security issues now having been exacerbated by the pandemic, particularly in relation to civil unrest and political protest.
“This has been driven by both Covid-related opportunism and existing divisions. Similarly, crime levels have increased in some locations. We are only at the beginning of the socioeconomic and psychological fallout of the Covid-19 crisis,” Sharp explained, noting that “it is understandable that, to varying degrees, the general population and business are more focussed on the demands and application of Covid-related precautions”.
However, he warned that perennial security and safety issues have not abated, graphically illustrated by the recent terror attacks in Vienna, among others. Similarly, responding to high impact threats such as natural disasters has gained another layer of complexity owing to Covid-19 medical considerations and fluid travel restrictions.
Sharp continued that the need for evacuations, including for those with acute medical needs and often involving complex security considerations had accelerated greatly.
“Logistically difficult, requiring a high level of expertise, and impactful to the bottom line, organisations that haven’t had logistical support in place have found themselves and their employees exposed.”
Nearly a third of risk professionals surveyed (28%) cited the ability to evacuate employees when necessary as a challenge in ensuring their health and security, which the outlook noted was felt most acutely by respondents supporting assignees (39%) and those based in Africa and the Middle East, and Japan (37% respectively).
About 73% of risk professionals surveyed predict that Covid-19 medical reasons will be the most likely cause of evacuation next year, with this number increasing to 80% for respondents based in Asia.
About one in three (31%) of those surveyed cite border closures, which rises to 40% for respondents in Australia and 50% in Singapore.
While a fifth (21%) of all respondents think that natural disasters are the most likely cause, this rises to 34% of respondents in US and 36% of respondents in Japan.
Security threats also continue to be important in Africa and the Middle East, where 37% of respondents think these will cause evacuation next year, notably higher than other regions (25% overall).
As reflected on the International SOS Security risk map, over 55% of countries in Africa are now fully or partially in high or extreme security risk level, with increases this year in militancy or insurgency.