Flight attendants who were grounded at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic showed severe symptoms of depression and stress, according to a study published in Frontiers in Psychology. Those who were flying during this time showed severe symptoms of anxiety.
During regular times, cabin crew personnel face a variety of challenges due to their off-beat work schedules and the unique nature of their jobs. In an initial May 2019 study among 105 German flight attendants from 12 airlines, researchers Yvonne Görlich and Daniel Stadelmann explored how these difficult job circumstances relate to mental health.
When the coronavirus pandemic grounded flights around the world, airline crew were faced with a new set of challenges. This prompted Görlich and Stadelmann to conduct a second survey in April 2020 to see how these unusual challenges may have affected flight crew members’ mental health. This second survey was conducted among 1119 German flight attendants from 22 airlines.
Both surveys measured a series of job-related characteristics and included assessments of anxiety, depression, and stress symptoms. Using appropriate cut-off scores, the researchers examined the presence of clinically-relevant mental health symptoms.
The researchers found that the 2019 sample showed relatively normal rates of clinically relevant mental health symptoms when compared to a healthy sample — 8% of the flight attendants showed clinically significant stress, 6% showed clinically significant anxiety, and 8% showed clinically significant depression symptoms. By contrast, the 2020 sample showed much higher numbers, with nearly a quarter (24%) of flight attendants showing clinically relevant stress, 14% showing clinically relevant anxiety, and 23% showing clinically relevant depression symptoms.
In April 2020, over 90% of German planes remained grounded. Among the 2020 sample, 87% of flight attendants were not flying but were receiving partial compensation for the loss of pay. The survey revealed that 66% of flight attendants either feared or partly feared losing their jobs due to the pandemic, and this fear was linked to higher depression, stress, and anxiety symptoms.
Notably, 35% reported that they currently had existential fears while only 3% said they had existential fears before the pandemic. Nearly three-quarters (73%) of the flight attendants said their personal situation had “worsened” because of the pandemic and 53% expected it to get worse in future. However, 33% expected an improvement in their personal situation due to opportunities for things like better sleep, rest, and time with friends.
Those who were still flying during the pandemic showed lower depression and stress scores but greater anxiety than flight attendants who were not working. The authors infer that this increased anxiety was likely due to worries about contracting the coronavirus.
Görlich and Stadelmann point out that the initial sample of flight attendants working pre-COVID-19 appeared remarkably healthy in terms of mental well-being, despite the challenges of their occupation. Support from one’s supervisor and having the chance to take a break during a turnaround appeared to protect against stress and depression symptoms, while irregular eating habits appeared detrimental.
The authors note that their study speaks to how quickly unemployment can lead to mental health issues — the sample pulled during the coronavirus showed triple the numbers for depression and stress symptoms, and over double the numbers for anxiety symptoms.
“During this crisis, healthcare systems prioritized the treatment of COVID-19 patients in an unprecedented way,” Görlich and Stadelmann say. “This study suggests that healthcare systems must also prepare for a wave of mental illness and that society must now take massive prophylactic measures (see also Holmes et al., 2020).”
The researchers advise that companies should prioritize discussions concerning career outlook and emphasize safety measures for preventing infection at work in order to address the psychological hardships associated with working during the pandemic.
The study, “Mental Health of Flying Cabin Crews: Depression, Anxiety, and Stress Before and During the COVID-19 Pandemic”, was authored by Yvonne Görlich and Daniel Stadelmann.