It may seem out of a travel buyer's remit, says Amon Cohen, but looking after employees' physical wellbeing can bring wider benefits.
It did not exactly constitute forensic statistical analysis, but the answers were revealing nonetheless. At the Institute of Travel & Meetings (ITM) annual conference in May, I asked various travel buyers whether they concern themselves with the physical and mental health of their travellers. The answers, unanimously, were negative.
"I'm not surprised," says Susan Lancaster, director of client management for HRG. "Travel managers don't see themselves as responsible for traveller health, but rather for issues like tracking compliance with policy."
But why? Travel managers have long involved themselves in fulfilling their organisations' duty of care to travellers, yet only in the sense of managing their security and safety. Health issues rarely merit a mention, even though they are far more likely to afflict frequent travellers than terrorist attacks or hotel fires. A combination of jetlag, early days, poor cabin air quality, patchy sleep, over-eating and under-exercising make regular business travel one of the least healthy lifestyles imaginable for a white-collar worker.
"If you put all those factors together, it is a toxic situation," says Tracey Randell, who runs a nutritional consultancy service called Healthy Aspirations. And as a former travel manager for the mass media company Viacom, she is someone who understands traveller health better than most.
Despite the reaction at the ITM conference, some companies are waking up to the issue. Lancaster quotes examples of policy changes by two major clients this year to illustrate the point. The first was a large manufacturing concern, which made business class mandatory for all flights over seven hours - even though HRG forecast the upgrade would increase the client's travel costs by 25 per cent.
The second example was a bank that reversed a nine-month-old decision to move the minimum flight duration for business class from six hours to eight hours, thus restoring New York as a premium cabin destination. It followed what Lancaster describes as "noises within the business" about the impact on travellers. The same concern, she believes, explains why more companies have not downgraded during the recent double-dip in the long-term global recession. "The renewed focus on reducing cost means we are frequently asked to analyse the savings clients could achieve through policy downgrades," she says. "Yet out of every 10 clients we do the work for, eight won't go ahead with it. When it goes to the board for final sign-off, the message comes back down that the benefit to the business is not worth the risk to the employee."
The key word in Lancaster's comment is "risk". The growing fear of reputational damage and legal liability is one of two principal reasons why traveller health seems belatedly to be appearing on some corporate agendas.