The world of cabin crew or flight attendant is a fascinating one, with many benefits and a clear level of fan. But one will soon realise that it is not only about traveling and benefits. It is one very demanding job, not so much on the job description and tasks at hand, but because of the stress put on body and further on due to the psychological stress created. Technology has created amazing aeroplanes, that can travel thousand miles around the world at extreme speeds, non-stop for hours. However, the human body and the brain are not designed for such long trips in short period of times. What these machines are capable of doing, is not easily adapted by the physical and mental functions. This article aims to summarise the issues faced by the cabin crew and provide some tips.
There have been numerous studies on work performance during these stages of extreme conditions, but no study has clearly identified the psychological problems generated. Some studies have tried to dig deeper when it comes to flight crews’ mental health, but the cabin crew have definitely not received the same emphasis. It is unfortunately a widely accepted picture, that cabin crew are there for the service and only. Cabin crew are not seen as a vital part of the industry, by both people outside the industry, but sadly enough, by people inside the industry – including colleagues and management. The general public has most of the times no awareness about the actual job of the cabin crew – which is to help them during evacuation, to support them in cases of medical issues, to provide security, to offer assistance to passengers in need and so on. All those tasks are usually spontaneous and out of the ordinary and this is what makes this profession so peculiar.
This not so ordinary life of cabin crew, is further compounded by factors that are beyond the control of the individuals, like organisational structures such as rostering. This creates a hug stress pile up for the crews which sometimes causes the wrong reactions. When a worker in a factory loses temper and throws some tools around yelling, everybody is compassionate and make an effort to support and understand the workplace conditions, but if a cabin crew loses temper and yells at a passenger, or is seen misbehaving, it is immediately front headlines and social media news. And this is how the expected perfect image is destroyed.
Stress can be described in many different ways. Even though predominantly seen as negative, depending on the context and the circumstances, it can be seen both as positive or negative. In behavioural science it is described as the perception of danger, with subsequent anxiety, discomfort and emotional pressure. This creates struggle with adjustment. On the other hand, some individuals work better under some levels of stress! But it varies from person to person.
Generally, stress is the condition experienced when an individual perceives that the personal, social, psychological or professional resources at the time, are inadequate to confront the demands experienced during certain situations. Job stress can be more specifically defined as the situation where the individual’s capabilities, resources or needs, are not adequate to match the job requirements, resulting in harmful physical and emotional responses. This can result in underperforming and it can affect, the individual, the team composition, as well as the organisation. For this reason, it is often considered the first finger that pushes the first domino (domino effect).
All the factors that cause stress, are called stressors and can be categorised in 3 main groups:
- Physical: Aviation environment is a high-risk environment and rich in potential physical stressors such as cabin noise, temperature, humidity, vibration, oxygen level, hypoxia, fumes, poor air quality, ozone exposure, light level, turbulence, acceleration and motion sickness, all experienced in the physical environment of the aeroplane’s cabin.
- Physiological: which includes bodily needs like fatigue, meals- hunger, hygiene, sleep etc
- Psychological: these include all other factors related to individual’s emotions, relationships with family and peers, social status, financial status etc
The first category is out of the control of the crew and it is very frequent to see crew suffering from dry skin, cold symptoms, lower back pain, skin irritations, sore throat etc. It might not be so obvious, but the job puts a variety of physical demands on the crew, such as pushing/ pulling the carts, removing heavy containers from the galleys, having a very tough time-constraint service and other exhaustive actions. Furthermore, the cabin crew jumpseats are not designed for long rests, are very stiff and perpendicular, escalating the back pains.
The other two categories vary greatly between each individual. Crew can somehow control them and those stressors are brought on board by the individual’s choices, lifestyle and perceptions. But none is prone to the physiological effects of the flight. Cabin crew is a unique occupational group in terms of demands and lifestyle. The repeated jet-lag, working around the clock, in shifts and on long duties, will inevitably create sleeping difficulties which will result in fatigue. The disruption of the circadian rhythms, not only on sleep, but also on nutrition (both in terms of time and in terms of quality) will also cause digestive issues, abnormal weight disruption etc. These can make the crew behave in a constant state of tiredness, making them sloppy, inattentive, careless and inefficient.
The psychological stressors are something that the companies don’t understand quite well, as these factors and the results are frequently hidden. Cabin crew is a job that demands high levels of self-control. There is a very strict policy on what is acceptable behaviour and what not. This complexity and strictness cause crew to behave unnaturally and to deviate from being themselves! Cabin crew are the first line of defence when passengers are unsatisfied, irritated or angry. But as there is no law enforcement at 35000ft, the cabin crew have to handle the situation, sometimes even having to confront heavy, violent or verbally abusive people. Things can escalate even more, when the passenger cannot communicate in a language that a crew can speak, as many times passengers are not comfortable with the international aviation language of English. But it is not only the unruly passengers. There are passengers who are handicapped and need the most of assistance. There are deaths on board. There are labours on board. There are sick children crying out in pain.
All these handling of people generates an unnatural way for cabin crew of dealing with feelings. This is technically a case of emotional labour. Where the employee has to put the self away and empathise for the customer. It is a case of producing an openly acknowledged facial feeling and show real affection, whilst putting away the self-sentiments. It is a form of expressing of feelings according to the company policy and standards in order to gain a wage. This has a very deep effect in the internal world of feelings of the crew, which can further affect the person’s life outside of work.
All these emotions and feelings, take place in a confined space, in unnatural for the body environmental conditions. The problem escalates further by the composition of the crew teams. Most of the time, especially in big airlines, crew do not have the chance to really get to know their colleagues. They might have never met before the flight, and most likely they will never meet again after the flight. If the airline is operating on short haul sectors, these crew may not even have the chance to talk about themselves. This prevents the foundations for a strong working culture, where the colleagues can really support each other, and can share their problems and concerns. The lack of co-worker support can have detrimental effects on the individual when faced with a difficult situation. The supervisor support is most of the times a check/ assessment.
But the issues in the cabin are not the real threat. Once the flight is finished, the crew can forget all the problems and troubles and detach from work conditions. But when most people finish work and go back home to their families and friends, cabin crew are most likely inside a hotel room. This loneliness and isolation experienced has devastating psychological effects. The technology might help keep contact with the persons you love, but when you have a time difference, it is not easy to just call someone up. You are in a room all alone, eating at irregular times, food that is not really your preference and then you have to consider the time at home so you don’t disturb your family or friends with your call (assuming the connection is good and you can make the call in the first place!)
This irregular contact with family and friends creates a social struggle. The compatibility of work and maintaining the social responsibilities is really hard. The absence from significant family and friends’ events can create a distance and maybe isolation, or even failed relationships. This produces a form of guilt of being an inadequate parent/ spouse/ friend, which many times you try to compensate by excessive gifting.
But even being free from too many social tasks, the stress of adapting back to your daily rhythms after a long duty away, cannot be emphasised. It is a constant struggle of making the correct choices. Should you rest, or should you try to complete the daily tasks that are left behind since last time and just keep piling up? Should you go out with friends or should you try to recover from sleep deprivation? This constant conflict in decisions creates a form of immobility, where someone just disengages from natural life rhythms and lives on his/her own world. This is a reason crew hang out with crew. This feeling of mutual understanding and compassion make them bond better. But then, you have a monthly roster, so you need to plan your life around that schedule. Sometimes this mean that you cannot catch up with someone for weeks! Hence, they end up in a situation of rumination, self-blame, sadness and even depression
A normal cabin crew is faced with all these stressors throughout their careers. And we have not even considered any other “normal” stressors felt by “normal” people, like health issues in the family, relationship issues or financial problems. It is unfortunate that the job security for cabin crew is quite low, as they are considered by the management not specialised personnel, easy to lay-off when needed. This, in an industry that companies rise and fall constantly.
This article is not created to cause chaos among the crew, or to prevent others from following this otherwise enjoyable profession. However, it is essential to show that the problems some crew are facing, are not extraordinary and are not specific only to them. So, how should cabin crew tackle all this stress?
The first and most important step in all the problems is to understand it. Then you can be better prepared. Proper preparation will not remove the stressors, but will help reduce the effects of the stress. The more you know about something, the less you fear it. Therefore, pre-flight preparation should include a proper sleep and a healthy nutrition. Exercising is always helpful in getting better sleep, feeling more energetic and creating a better appetite. Reading about the flight, the latest information and updates on manuals, will ease the stress of the job demand. During the flight, crew should find their own tricks to alleviate stress. Use of the restroom as a chance to take a few moments to relax and breathe is always an ideal solution. Try to express your concerns and problems to a colleague, share the duties, ask for support. Nobody ever lost by asking for help. Remember the goal is to arrive to the destination as fresh as when you started. After the flight, each individual should find his/her ways of relaxing and disengaging from the flight. This can include exercising, physical relaxation, other relaxation techniques, talking to friends and family etc. A tricky part here, is to avoid discussions with colleagues about the flight. Let yourselves relax, refresh your bodies and minds, and there is always time to discuss any issues.
Some people prefer to relax with more aggressive techniques, like alcohol or over the counter drugs that induce sleep. Even though not a mistake, they must be dealt with the utmost care, as addiction can come very deceitfully. Other crew just prefer to remain on their home time irrespective of the destination, even though this becomes very difficult sometimes as you find yourself fully awake in the middle of the night with no food available and nothing to do. In any case, each one must go through some trials and errors in order to find the ideal suit.
When it comes to small circumstances during the flight, in order to prevent rise of heart beating and getting nervous, there are 3 steps to take. First you need to gain command of the deep breathing. That is to control your breathing rate. Then you need to control muscle tension by clenching the thumb within the palm and finally you need to have that little self-talk in your brain to command the cognitive process. This will reinstate the equilibrium and will help the appraisal of seriousness & significance of the event.
In any case, if you feel that you are suffering from chronic stress you should consider some time off the job. Counseling is always an option. Remember that admitting the problem is not a sign of weakness but rather a sign of strength. The social stigma if you open up should not prevent you from seeking the cure of the problem. The support of the family and friend in this is very important. This is a reason many crews elect to be partnered in life with someone with similar experiences or similar work patterns, who can understand them and support them as such.
As we can see, cabin crew are under constant pressure by a diversity of stressors which combined together aggravate the result. The problem many times is that crew turn up to work from pressure and fear of management, sometimes because of failure to notice the clues, or sometimes because they underestimate the seriousness of the problem. It is not unheard of the stress symptoms to be suppressed by the individual and ignored by the company, until it is very late. The reactions of behaviour changes, aggressiveness, alcohol dependence, or sickness like heart diseases, hypertension and peptic ulcer are the sign that the problem has existed for too long.
The critical public safety role of flight attendants and the concomitant demands often go unrecognised. These crew are attempting to self-regulate their life and are constantly faced with decision making about their lives and their well being. The financial cost of stress has dramatically increased and the industry needs to understand that these people go through an emotional roller coaster on a daily basis. Keeping track of daily chores and routines is challenging. You get into the habit and pattern of doing something right and nice, and then you are off for a long period because of duty and then it is impossible to resume. You see yourself letting days get wasted simply because the body needs to recover and that makes you annoyed as the list of stuff to do grows bigger and bigger. The independence required during the job and the time you are away, contradicts the person you need to be when you return home. And when you finally manage to return to home rhythms and cycles, you are off again for another duty. This lack of continuity is a destroyer of the well being, the psychological state, as well as the personal or emotional development of the person.
The purpose of the Safety Management System is to prevent more accidents. But maybe we are focusing too much on the machines, forgetting that they are operated by people. The SMS should pay more attention to the wellbeing of the employees – and this is a definite way to gain the greater return on investment, as happy employees, offer a better service and make better customers.