Flight attendants manage their unique career circumstances remarkably well, in order to care for the needs of passengers–often at the expense of their own needs. They face unpredictable schedules, emotional labor, extended time away from loved ones, and disruptions to Circadian rhythm. All of these factors make it hard to manage mental health as a flight attendant, despite one’s best efforts.
Even pre-pandemic, flight attendants were known to contend with specific career-related emotional struggles: high-functioning alcoholism and substance use, sleep issues, relationship troubles, and the long-term consequences of emotional labor on the job.
Between the loss of the more fulfilling aspects of the job (like enjoying foreign locales without health and safety fears), the increase of violent and unruly passengers, and the cumulative stress of the pandemic’s uncertainties, many flight attendants now find themselves in a mental health tailspin. Many are at the brink of burnout or resignation.
The state of flight attendant mental health pre-COVID
It’s no secret that flight attendants put forth a huge amount of emotional labor. What is less well-known is that the very concept of emotional labor (and its effects) was first studied among a group that most clearly experienced it: flight attendants.
Emotional labor and “stuffing” emotions
The very nature of the job hasn’t changed much since those seminal studies on flight attendant mental health. For anyone who hasn’t been a flight attendant, just imagine the reality of this role: “A lot of us are suffering from really bad anxiety, being trapped in a tube with people all day…We’re not allowed to show our real emotions, ever. I actually swear in my sleep and scream, and I swear it must be because I’m not allowed to express my emotions…”
Because the job demands such a high level of emotional composure, flight attendants may learn to “stuff” their emotions, rather than coping in relative real time. These individuals often feel stuck with their struggles, and may resist seeking assistance from others. Airlines’ emotional culture, combined with the very real emotional pressures of this work, often leaves flight attendants’ unique emotional needs unmet.
Sleep deprivation and Circadian disruption
Sleep deprivation due to insomnia or party-hard culture (maybe more of an issue pre-covid) has a significant impact on emotional wellbeing. The CDC describes that inadequate sleep correlates “with significantly increased odds of frequent mental distress.” Even Circadian disruption without sleep deprivation concretely harms mental and physical health, as described in a recent paper in the journal Nature.
It’s not news that “flight attendants can experience circadian rhythm disruption due to travel through multiple time zones.” For instance, when compared to teachers as a control group, one study showed that “flight attendants are more likely…to experience circadian disruption, as measured by melatonin production.” Other studies have shown similar results compared to the general population.
Relationships and social quality time
Stable relationships and social quality time can counteract the mental health impact of stress and sleep issues. But unfortunately, flight attendants often feel deprived of both due to the nature of their career. Dating is difficult due to unpredictable schedules. And, it’s difficult to maintain fulfilling relationships of all kinds when you’re constantly traveling and giving your emotional energy to strangers.
As a way to manage mental health without robust day-to-day social support, many flight attendants self-medicate or drink to excess. This known aspect of flight attendant culture can both produce social pressure to drink and normalize high-functioning alcoholism. Without a safe space to discuss issues, flight attendants can’t pursue solutions, and numbing out begins to make more and more sense. As one flight attendant describes substance culture: “If anyone in the airline or public safety industry said they don’t drink, it’s one of two things. Either they’re a recovering alcoholic or a liar.”
COVID’s impact on flight attendant mental health
Since the pandemic began in early 2020, flight attendants have undergone repeated crises that have many at their physical and emotional breaking points. One flight attendant for American Airlines, quoted in a CNN article elaborates: “We’ve gone through worrying about our health and safety, worrying about our jobs — now [we are] worrying about our safety in a different way.”
The rate of conflict with unruly passengers has jumped drastically, leaving flight attendants to spend precious energy worrying about their safety and having their boundaries respected: “In my entire career, I have never experienced what we are experiencing right now…I go to work now and I always worry what’s going to happen, what’s going to trip somebody up, trigger their anger. It’s a whole new ballgame out there right now and it’s a different type of passenger we’re seeing right now.”
Of course there’s nothing airlines can do about these passengers, but they can at least provide flight attendants with resources to engage with their rightful frustrations and worries.
Flight attendants have weathered this storm with flying colors. How can they find better mental health support?
Apparently, the common resources offered to flight attendants aren’t working well enough. For instance, flight attendants might technically have access to traditional mental health resources like therapy, but there are clear obstacles to their utilization of these services.
Unpredictable schedules get in the way of regular therapy, and additionally, it may be difficult to find a provider who understands mental health specifically within the airline industry. How many therapists are former flight attendants? Flight attendants don’t really get much from talking to a professional who hasn’t experienced their struggles firsthand.
Many flight attendants feel dedicated to their jobs but struggle increasingly without better solutions to their unique mental health context. In terms of validation, productive venting, and real-world solutions, peers who have worked in the airline industry are much better-positioned to provide effective support.
If you’re a flight attendant who would like to take action for your mental health, with support from others who can relate, consider seeking out peers. It’s better than keeping it all in and soldiering on alone.