Fear of flying and business travel: what employers need to know

Nearly one in six Brits are scared of flying, thanks to anything from a fear of heights to a previous bad experience with turbulence.

This high rate of ‘aviophobia’, revealed by YouGov research, could make life difficult for businesses that need to send employees overseas. After all, UK companies sent staff on a total of 7.2m business trips abroad in 2016, according to the Office for National Statistics.

But what can companies do if a member of staff refuses to step on the plane? What if their job role changes to include overseas travel? And what if an experienced jetsetter suddenly develops a fear of flying?

Make it clear

Where possible, make it clear right at the start of the employment process when overseas travel is required. Kirsten Cluer, HR consultant and owner of Cluer HR, says: “As well as underlining any expectations on the requirement to travel in terms of where, when, how and how often during the recruitment process, employers should also ensure contracts of employment are written to incorporate travel requirements and that travel policies are included within the employee handbook.”

Disciplinary action

If the employee is well-informed, then a refusal to travel can be deemed as an act of misconduct, justifying disciplinary action. Alan Price, employment law director at Peninsula, explains: “By accepting an employment offer, the employee is indicating they will undertake the role as has been outlined to them. As such, a request for an employee to go on an overseas trip is a reasonable management instruction required to carry out their employment duties. A refusal to travel can be deemed as an act of misconduct, with appropriate disciplinary sanctions applied.”

But disciplinary action should of course be carefully considered in cases when the phobia can be defined as a disability. This could be the case if the phobia has a long-term, major impact on the employee’s day-to-day ability, or if it is an underlying symptom of another mental impairment such as anxiety. Disciplinary action or dismissal always needs to be approached with caution – making an employee do something they really don’t want to isn’t great for staff morale.

New to the job

What if overseas travel becomes part of a job role for an existing employee with a fear of flying, or someone develops a new phobia of flying?

For a start, companies should try and at least provide some flexibility in their travel policy. For example, to allow video conferencing or virtual meetings instead of face-to-face meetings overseas. Or to provide the option for employees to take a train or drive, where feasible, as long as it comes at no extra cost to the employer.

Methods of support should also be included in the policy. Kirsten says: “Employers should try to work with the employee to understand their fear and offer strategies to help them overcome it. The company might, for example, consider paying for some hypnotherapy or Neuro-Linguistic Programming treatment.”

She adds: “There are also courses available for flying phobias where people go on a 20-minute flight to help conquer their fears, while simulator courses can also help too.”

Ultimately a fear of flying can get in the way of business but you need to work with employees to find a solution.

Plan ahead

With a fear of flying so common, the important thing is for businesses to anticipate any issues to avoid problems before they arise. Here are a few tips to follow:

  • Inform employees at interview stage, and also in their contract, if travel is a requirement of their job role
  • Consider including a provision in your travel policy entitling employees to use different methods of travel, or alternatives such as video conferencing
  • Outline any support available for staff to help with their phobia and help them take positive action to overcome it
  • If disciplinary action is being considered, ensure it’s a last resort and be sure that the employee’s reasons for not flying are not as a result of a medical condition that constitutes a disability


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