‘Infodemic’ and ‘Covid myopia’ pose risks to global workforce

Business travellers reported the highest level of risk since 2016 after a record low in 2018
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Risks facing the global workforce have reached their highest level since 2016, with a growing ‘infodemic’, mental health issues and ‘Covid-19 myopia’ posing significant challenges to businesses in the months to come.

Health and security services company International SOS, which counts nearly two-thirds of the Fortune Global 500 companies as clients, also predicts that political disruption derived from ecological issues is likely to prove a risk for businesses.

Overall, said the organisation’s analysis showed that workforce risk was at a five-year high and was likely to increase in 2021.

The full report and survey by International SOS will be released on 10 December.

In findings that it released early, International SOS reported that eight in 10 risk professionals thought that the health and security risks faced by the workforce increased in 2020. This was true for employees who stayed in one country (85%), “assignees” – people working under contract abroad (81%), academics and researchers (80%), business travellers (79%) and remote workers (77%).

Half thought this would increase further in 2021, a concern 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%). This was partly because of a degradation in trust in government and health bodies; seen as a key challenge for a third (31%) of risk professionals surveyed.

For business travellers, the statistics indicating insecurity shot up from a low in 2018 of 47%. The previous high came in 2016 (72%), when terror attacks in locations previously considered safe may have been front of mind.

Dr Neil Nerwich, group medical director at International SOS, said: “The Covid-19 pandemic has created a tripartite of crises, with public health, geopolitical and economic crises all impacting the workforce and business on a global scale.

“This has been exacerbated by an infodemic in an increasingly complex world environment. While the news of a potential vaccine is very positive and resources – including our own Covid-19 website content and assistance services with Covid-19 evacuation capability – are providing direction and support, organisations will need to go through an evolution in their duty of care provisions.

“Just as 9/11 changed the way that 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.”

International SOS made the following forecasts for 2021:

  • Ecopolitical turbulence exacerbating tensions, civil unrest and crime
  • Pandemic borne crisis management teams will redefine duty of care practices
  • The growing infodemic will increase demand for trusted sources of health and security information and advice
  • Mental health issues will be a primary productivity disruptor
  • Singular focus on Covid-19 will create risk blind spots

Nerwich said the pandemic had triggered board level decision-making on health issues, the increasing need for real-time expert medical guidance, and organisational responsibility for employee wellbeing including those working from home. He added that perceptions of traditional health responsibility needed to be aligned to global best practice. As such, the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s) would come into greater focus.

As travel began to open up again, said Nerwich, to support the recovery of the global economy, the issues of traveller well-being and confidence would need to tackled.

Most risk specialists responding to the report felt that infectious diseases would cause a fall in employee productivity next year and about a third thought that mental health issues would contribute to that. However, experts on SOS International’s workforce resilience council – drawn from outside specialists, thinktanks and NGOs – predicted that mental health issues would overtake Covid-19 next year.

Other risks such as geopolitical dangers (30%), civil unrest (25%) and security (32%) were not seen as so threatening this year, leading to a possibility that “Covid-19 myopia” was itself a major issue.

Mick Sharp, group director, security services at International SOS, said the findings had “uncovered a disconnect and a potentially business threatening level of Covid-19 myopia. Security issues have 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, noting we are only at the beginning of the socio-economic and psychological fallout of the Covid-19 crisis.”

He added that 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 due to Covid-19 medical considerations and fluid travel restrictions”.

The report also found that the need for evacuations had accelerated greatly. Sharp said some evacuations were logistically difficult, required a high level of expertise, and very costly and that “organisations that haven’t had logistical support in place have found themselves and their employees exposed”.

International SOS’s survey was carried out by Ipsos MORI online, and was of 1,425 risk professionals across 99 countries.

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