In the latest instalment of Travel Weekly’s Mental Health Matters series, Natalie Marsh looks at the particular challenges faced by employees based at home, on the road and overseas

The ability to manage your own schedule and be based in your own working environment makes homeworking an attractive proposition for a travel agent.

However, the pressure of earning on a commission-only basis can be stressful. If there are bills to pay and a booking falls through, that can make a big difference to a monthly income. Being out of the office and away from the social interaction if you’re having a bad day can make it feel worse.

“Trying to get the balance of work life as well as home life sometimes does cross the boundaries,” says Natalie Taylor, a personal travel consultant with Hays Travel, adding: “You can’t switch off”.

Taylor is one of the thousands of UK travel agents working from home.

Having a support network of other homeworkers, she admits, is very important. “If you’re ever having a bad day and you just need a bit of a rant, we’re always there for each other. It doesn’t matter what time of day.”

Social interaction

Keeping in touch digitally is one way that can help facilitate this support. Chris O’Sullivan, head of business development and engagement at the Mental Health Foundation, believes companies should harness technology to ensure all employees feel involved.

“You need to look at how you work as an organisation to enable people who don’t work in an office…to feel part of that culture,” he says.

For employers, O’Sullivan points out that it can also be harder to spot signs of any mental health problems among staff based at home and, therefore, a good line manager relationship is crucial.  “You may have to be a bit more alert to things like changes in their written manner or their availability for video conferencing.”

With 1,800 homeworkers globally, Travel Counsellors aims to reach out regularly. The company encourages homeworkers to meet up with others in their local area, engage in its online community forums and watch its in-house TV station.

“There’s always someone at the other end of Skype ready to have a conversation about anything, not just about the business,” says global colleague experience partner – wellbeing & engagement, Leanne Stant.

The company has also enlisted a professional counsellor to offer further support if needed.

One scenario that is often a big adjustment for homeworkers is the move from an office environment to working from home, and working for themselves, says Stant.

“If you work full time in an office and then you decide ‘I want to be a business owner, and I’m going to work from home’, that transition, mentally, is astonishing,” she says.

“I would always recommend for new starters: don’t be tough on yourself. You are in a transition; it’s going to take some time. And please accept the support that’s there for you.”

The senior team at The Personal Travel Agents at Co-operative Travel has undergone training in conjunction with mental health charity Mind.

The company, part of the Midcounties Co-operative, has also piloted a two-day retreat for its homeworking agents focused on wellbeing and personal development.

“I think we need to understand talking is one thing. Support has to be offered if you’re encouraging that,” says Sheena Whittle, head of direct.

On land, sea and mountains

Employees based on the road have their own set of challenges.

“You’re automatically under stress because you’re driving somewhere, keeping to time frames,” says Jenny Wade, key account manager at Viking Cruises. “You’re making appointments all the time but having to make sure you’re on time for those appointments.”

Wade spends two to three days a week on the road and works the rest of the week from home. Regular exercise and a fitness routine are important to her. “If I can’t do that, that’s a problem for me,” she says.

Nicky Lyle, HR director at Inghams and Explore parent Hotelplan, says: “If somebody has an existing mental health scenario going on in their life, it’s a challenge as soon as you take that [person] overseas into a very different working or living environment.”

The industry also comprises many people who travel extensively for business or are based overseas seasonally. There are some “major things that are associated with protecting and improving our mental health that travel can interfere with,” says O’Sullivan. Sleep, the ability to exercise and maintain a healthy diet being among the most crucial, while other forms of self-care and relationships with others back home can also be disrupted.

Royal Caribbean Cruises, for example, has more members of staff on the ocean than on land – so has a HR team on each ship and offers crew members access to employee assistance programmes.

Richard Twynam, managing director UK & Ireland at Royal brand Azamara Club Cruises, says: “We do stay really close to our crew. Crew welfare committees in particular are really important to make sure that we’re keeping their career on board as engaging and enjoyable as it can be.”

Tour guides and seasonal workers in ski resorts can find themselves a world away from home and, while they may take such jobs in order to escape, their mental health problems can follow them.

Hotelplan is now sending one of its trained mental health first aiders in its UK office to its resorts overseas to share their knowledge with management – and Lyle hopes to “create some awareness” in pre-season training.

Janine Salame, global managing director at Topdeck Travel, says customers may go on tours to escape their own mental health issues. Tour leaders are trained, but external help is called in if the situation requires it.

Salame also acknowledges the difficulties of travelling for work among employees. “When people travel quite often, we make sure they have self-care days before they head back into the office,” she says.

In a fast-paced industry where employees are often dispersed across the country, or the world, mental health support and wellbeing initiatives should adapt accordingly, O’Sullivan says.

“What you don’t want to do is have either travel or homeworking being another obstacle that stops people from being able to come forward and get help if they need it, or take steps to proactively prevent the stress”.

If you would like to contribute anything to Travel Weekly’s Mental Health Matters series, contact Natalie Marsh at natalie.marsh@travelweekly.co.uk

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