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WorkForce Risk Reaches Five Year High Reveals International SOS Risk Outlook 2021

Covid-19 is the prism that all other risks will be seen through

Mumbai: The risk level to the global workforce has reached its highest since 2016 according to the findings of the International SOS Risk Outlook 2021. The outlook reveals findings from the Business Resilience Trends survey of over 1,400 risk professionals across 99 countries including India, carried out by Ipsos MORI. It also brings together insights from the Workforce Resilience Council and extensive International SOS proprietary data.


  • Ecopolitical turbulence will exacerbate 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 & security information and advice
  • Mental health issues will be a primary productivity disruptor
  • A singular focus on Covid-19 will create risk blind spots


Workforce Risk perceived to be at 5 years high and expected to increase in 2021

Unsurprisingly, around eight in ten risk professionals believe the health and security risks faced by the workforce increased in 2020 (specifically for “domestic employees” (85%), “assignees” (81%), “student and faculty” (80%), “business travelers” (79%) and “remote workers” (77%)). Around half believe that this will increase further in 2021, a concern most acutely felt in Asia, especially among those responsible for assignees (60%) and business travelers (60%).

The respondents from the USA were most likely to report an increase in risk (91%). This is alongside a degradation in trust in local governments & health bodies; seen as a key challenge for a third (31%) of risk professionals surveyed – 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.

Dr. Rahul Kalia, Medical Director at International SOS (India) comments, “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. In India, like most of the world, 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 such as the accurate, actionable International SOS Covid-19 website content and assistance services including COVID19 evacuation capability, are providing direction and support, organizations 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.”

“While the current Pandemic and other seasonal infectious diseases continue to be the disruptive threat to business continuity in India, rising mental health issues amongst employees are anticipated to impact organizations in India considerably in the near future. The focus on employee health, not only reactive but also proactive, will need to take center stage. Organizations may need to re-imagine their health and wellness strategies as well to ensure a healthy and engaged workforce. The pandemic has triggered Board level decision-making on health issues, the increasing need for real-time expert medical guidance, and organizational responsibility for employee wellbeing including those working from home.

As organizations strive to get back to business operations, Covid-19 will be the prism that most other risks will be seen through. Perceptions of traditional health responsibility need to be aligned/enhanced to global best practice and, as such, the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s) will come into greater focus. 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 traveler well-being and confidence.”

The productivity gap of 2021

The majority of risk professionals surveyed feel that infectious disease (including Covid-19, Malaria, Dengue, Ebola, Zika, etc.) will cause a decrease in employee productivity in the next year, and 1 in 3 respondents (apart from those responsible for Students and Faculty) are anticipating mental health issues to also contribute. This rises to 43% among those responsible for Students and Faculty surveyed. However, in stark contrast, 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 for many of the respondents, including country risk rating, transport concerns, and security threats. Those responsible for business travelers surveyed cited ‘geopolitical threats’ (30%), ‘civil unrest’ (25%), and ‘security threats’ (32%) notably less than last year (52%, 52%, and 68% respectively).

Udit Mehta, a leading geopolitical and crisis management expert who serves as the Executive Vice President for International SOS stated “While COVID-19 has dominated the risk landscape, the blind spots it has created on other exigent causes of a crisis is as concerning not least the direct socio-economic impact and the geopolitical uncertainty it has driven across the world leading to a heightened threat from civil unrest and conventional crime.

“The pandemic and pandemonium surround is likely to ensure businesses, government, IGO’s and humanity at large keep Crisis Management as the center-fold while the flip, forward and further fortify Duty of Care principles not least to ensure parity for all people, processes, places, and predicaments.”

“While organizations operating in India and South Asia, traditionally complex markets from a geopolitical and health perspective have always accounted for crises and concurrent contingencies, the sheer scale of the COVID-19 pandemic has completely altered the status quo. Indian businesses shall need to institute capacities to build resilience as well as mechanisms of response for purposes of continuity to navigate through this fluidity.”

Evacuations Risk

Udit continues, “The requests for medical evacuations often involving complex security considerations has accelerated greatly. Logistically demanding, requiring a high level of expertise, and impactful to the bottom line, organizations that haven’t had logistical support in place have found themselves and their workforce exposed.” 

Nearly a third of risk professionals surveyed (28%) cited the ability to evacuate employees when necessary as a challenge in ensuring their health & security. This is felt most acutely by respondents supporting assignees (39%) and those based in Africa & the Middle East, and Japan (37% respectively).

73% of risk professionals surveyed predict that Covid-19 medical reasons will be the most likely cause of evacuation next year.

  • This increases to 80% for respondents based in Asia.
  • 1 in 3 (31%) of those surveyed cite border closure, this 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 the USA and 36% of respondents in Japan.
  • And Security threats continue to be important in Africa & the Middle East, where 37% of respondents think these would 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, which increases this year militancy or insurgency.

Top five operational challenges for organizations in ensuring the health and security of all your employees

The survey also uncovered the gaps where organizations may struggle operationally in providing the necessary health and security protection to all their employees, with the top five challenges:

Top mentions

Having adequate resources to deal with Covid-19  54%
Access to accurate & timely information on health & security threats  40%
Educating employees about risks  35%
Dealing with mental health issues  33%
Communicating during a crisis  33%

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