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Risk Outlook 2021 COVID-19 Prism

Press announcement

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

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

The risk level to the global workforce has reached its highest since 2016 according to the findings of the International SOS Risk Outlook 20211. The outlook reveals findings from the Business Resilience Trends survey of over 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.


  • 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


Workforce Risk perceived to be at 5 year 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 travellers” (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 travellers (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 travellers 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, 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.”
The pandemic has 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. As organisations 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 (SDGs) 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 traveller well-being and confidence.”

Risk Outlook 2021 COVID-19 Prism

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 travellers 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 pandemic2, 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.

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

Mick Sharp continues,

The need for evacuations, including for those with acute medical needs and often involving complex security considerations has accelerated greatly. Logistically difficult, requiring a high level of expertise, and impactful to the bottom line, organisations that haven’t had logistical support in place have found themselves and their employees 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 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.
  • 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 organisations in ensuring the health and security of all your employees.

The survey also uncovered the gaps where organisations 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 54%  
2. Access to accurate & timely information on health & security threats 40%  
3. Educating employees about risks 35%
4. Dealing with mental health issues 33%
5. Communication during a crisis 33%

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

Risk Maps can be embedded here. Downloadable accompanying graphics are available here.

*On behalf of International SOS, Ipsos MORI carried out an online survey among 1,425 risk professionals across 99 countries who chose to take part in the survey. International SOS provided Ipsos MORI with the sample which consisted of customers and contacts. Fieldwork took place between 22nd September and 19th October 2020. Within this news release, we report upon the following sub-sample bases:

Sub-sample Base
Responsible for Domestic Employees 968     
Responsible for Assignees 442
Responsible for Remote Workers 545
Responsible for Business Travellers 918
Responsible for Students and Faculty 176
Asia 515
Oceania 151
Europe (including Russia) 286
Africa and Middle East 143
Americas 321
Australia 115
India 134
USA 247
Japan 106
  1. The annual risk outlook study exposes gaps in the protection of employee health and security such as risk perception, mental health, productivity impacts and operational challenges. The survey* is complemented with interpretations and predictions from the Workforce Resilience Council, as well as extensive proprietary data and analysis from International SOS. The Workforce Resilience Council is is made up of representative experts of all health, security, and safety fields. The 36 participants in this year’s Council are from a mix of think tanks, associations, advisory boards, NGOs, and IGOs, relevant to the risks of working at home or abroad.
  3. International SOS Security Map was not carried out by Ipsos MORI.
About the International SOS Group of Companies
The International SOS Group of Companies is in the business of saving lives and protecting your global workforce from health and security threats. Wherever you are, we deliver customised health, security risk management and wellbeing solutions to fuel your growth and productivity. In the event of extreme weather, an epidemic or a security incident, we provide an immediate response providing peace of mind. Our innovative technology and medical and security expertise focus on prevention, offering real-time, actionable insights and on-the-ground quality delivery. We help protect your people, and your organisation's reputation, as well as support your compliance reporting needs. By partnering with us, organisations can fulfil their Duty of Care responsibilities, while empowering business resilience, continuity, and sustainability.

Founded in 1985, the International SOS Group, headquartered in London & Singapore, is trusted by over 9,000 organisations. This includes the majority of the Fortune Global 500. As well as mid-size enterprises, governments, educational institutions, and NGOs. Nearly 12,000 multi-cultural security, medical, logistics and digital experts stand with you to provide support & assistance from over 1,200 locations in 90 countries, 24/7, 365 days. Between them, International SOS employees speak nearly 100 languages and dialects in our Assistance Centres, Clinics, and offices.

To protect your workforce, we are at your fingertips: