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 more than 1,400 risk professionals across 99 countries, carried out by Ipsos MORI. It also brings together insights from the Workforce Resilience Council and extensive International SOS proprietary data.

The top five risk outlook predictions from the report include: 

  • 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;
  • Singular focus on COVID-19 will create risk blind spots for the enterprise.

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

Unsurprisingly, around eight in 190 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%).

Workforce risk outlook at an all-time high

The respondents from the U.S. 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 Neil Nerwich, Group Medical Director at International SOS 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. 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 Covid-19 website content and assistance services with Covid-19 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.”

“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," he continued. "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 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 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).

Mick Sharp, Group Director Security Services at International SOS, said, “The findings have 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 continued, "It is understandable that, to varying degrees, the general population and business are more focused on the demands and application of COVID-related precautions. However, perennial 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."

Evacuations Risk

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 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 USA and 36% of respondents in Japan.
  • And Security threats continue to be important in Africa & 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, with 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

  1. Having adequate resources to deal with COVID-19



  1. Access to accurate & timely information on health & security threats



  1. Educating employees about risks



  1. Dealing with mental health issues



  1. Communicating during a crisis




The Risk Outlook 2021 will be presented at global webinars on 10 December 2020. To register, click here.