Avoiding Burnout in Global Field Service Travel

IMG_1602cropAuthor:
Alan Freeman – LOF International HR Solutions

The following question, recently posted to an online discussion group, caught my eye:

“Our international technical services business is booming.  Our Field Service Techs are getting burnt out spending 2-3 months away from home. How can I incentivize them to keep traveling? They already receive an attractive daily bonus for each day in travel.  Also, some of the new clients are in areas that are not very desirable.”

My dear old grandpa used to tell me, “Son, if you run your horses too hard and too long, especially over rocky ground, they’re going to fall in exhaustion or go lame.  No amount of extra oats will make any difference.”

So what’s the problem?

 

Notable drop-offs in productivity, poor morale, health problems and, ultimately, resignations (at least in normal economic times) go hand-in-glove with heavy travel-related burnout – especially international travel to “not very desirable areas”.  If high crime rates, existence of serious infectious diseases, lack of sanitation, political unrest or even outright violence are characteristic of those destinations, then the prospect of employees being harmed, kidnapped or killed becomes a significant concern as well.

An indirect, negative impact on morale and productivity also can stem from marital or family problems attributable to employees’ extended absence from their spouses, partners and families.  Heavy travel on the part of one parent puts additional stress on the stay-at-home partner to look after the children, elderly parents, pets, household maintenance, financial management, etc.  In our experience, Field Service employees often maintained their homes and vehicles themselves so the spouse had to hire outside providers to look after these issues while the employee was traveling.

Throwing money at employees won’t make them or their families less susceptible to burnout, but it could contribute to a company reputation for “slave driving” and failing to understand the human side of the travel sacrifice. This is not a desirable outcome for the company or the employee.

What might be useful?

 

A firm could consider providing extended paid leave, “R&R”, between trips. Take a lesson from oil & gas, engineering & construction and defense contracting firms and utilize the “rotational assignment” approach.  Simply put, for every x weeks or months the employee works on travel, he/she is eligible for y weeks or months off on paid leave at home or in a “nice” location at company expense.  For example, one of our clients provides services at a mining site in a developing country.  Their employees work 7 days a week for 3 months at a camp site and then are sent home for a month off with full pay.

I once worked on a project where, after the employee worked 1 month (single status) at a remote Middle Eastern camp site, the company would pay for the employee and family to rendezvous in a Western European city, all expenses paid up to a set maximum, for a week.  Expensive? Yes, certainly.  Did it “refresh the horses”, improve morale and productivity and build positive morale and attitude toward the company?  Absolutely!

Sometimes, depending upon the facts and circumstances, it’s possible to provide some form of relaxation in-country (health club memberships, a bit of time off to sight-see, company-paid recreation, etc.) during travel.  This is another way to give them a needed rest.

Another possibility would be to hire additional Field Service staff so more employees share the travel burden and thereby make it possible for each to spend a bit less time in the field.  Yes, in today’s economic environment of extreme cost control, adding to labor cost is not a popular idea in the CFO’s office.  But then, what about the cost of assignment refusal, turnover, reduced productivity, lost opportunity while employees miss work due to illness or injury, and inability to recruit high caliber talent, etc.?

We also must ask how challenging, especially dangerous, are the “not very desirable” areas?  Iraq? Afghanistan? Somalia?  A jungle infested with disease-bearing mosquitoes?  Make sure you provide appropriate pre-travel medical exams and immunizations, and adopt some of the safety and security practices companies used for longer-term international assignees in hardship and danger locations.  This includes local safety and security plans, well thought out and established emergency evacuation plans and ensuring that death and disability insurance benefits are not voided by “war risk waiver” clauses in the insurance contracts.  This latter issue can easily be addressed through contact riders but, if not addressed proactively, can lead to extensive financial pain for the employer, especially given laws pertaining to the “duty of reasonable care”.  Woe unto those companies that have not established the mechanisms to track their employees’ whereabouts and deal effectively and quickly with emergencies.  Check out Mariana’s posting for some tips on extreme hardship assignments.

Our friends at International SOS Assistance are about to publish a research paper on employers’ legal “duty of care” that our readers should find of interest.

Something the person who raised the question didn’t mention – but we will – are global requirements for work permits, visas and tax compliance.  Often, even those on relatively brief field support trips to other countries are deemed by local governments to be performing “productive work” in those countries.  This can, and often does, require a work permit.  A company is well advised to consult with appropriate immigration counsel to ensure that its employees have the proper clearance to carry out their duties in each country.  This is not about the amount of time the employee might spend working in country; it is all about what he/she will be doing while in country.

As to taxes, members of management have often heard about the so-called “183 day rule” and simplistically believe that so long as the employee works in a given country for less than 183 days, he/she will not be liable for local income or social insurance taxes in the assignment country.  This is not necessarily the case and depends upon a number of key factors.  We recommend reading our contributing editor Claudia Howe’s excellent commentary on this issue.

So, at the end of the day, how do we respond to the question of “How do we incentivize our staff to keep traveling”?  We’d say, give your horses rest, treat them with dignity, recognize that their families bear a burden too, and provide them with fresh oats.

Otherwise, my dear old grandfather just might come back to haunt you!

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4 responses to “Avoiding Burnout in Global Field Service Travel

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  2. Great article! This happens to most of espat;sta population… Money isn’t everything
    st of expats population
    regarding nationality or

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  4. An interesting article.

    Several items there are of great assistance, thanks.