Everyone has been there - no one works in aviation and escapes without experiencing burnout. It has long been synonymous with our industry, just like many others, with overnights, long hours, and thankless work. According to a 2019 study published by Statista, the transportation industry reported a 75% burnout rate - meaning 75 out of 100 individuals surveyed felt overloaded by work. This becomes particularly alarming when considering our function and the “safety culture” so many organizations live to promote. It may be daunting, but the focus is better on remembering we are primarily responsible for our well-being and ensuring we bring our best selves to work daily.
Understanding the Problem
Photo: Mindful Enough
What is Burnout?
According to the World Health Organization, burnout is an occupational phenomenon defined as a “syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” Maybe a little harsh, but at least brutally honest. Some common signs of burnout include:
Headaches or chest pain
Loss of appetite
Loss of interest in activities
The list above is not exhaustive - many ways exist to determine how burnt out you are. The Areas of Worklife model, developed by scholars Christina Maslach (University of California at Berkeley) and Michael P. Leiter (Acadia University), is the most accepted psychological model to explain and predict burnout. Like most dynamic variables, it can be best viewed as a scale that must be balanced effectively. While the reading is aimed at life and work, we can also apply this to our personal lives.
Workload. Everyone has a personal capacity that is exceeded from time to time. Sure, it is a part of life, but a prolonged period exceeding our capacity will add unmanageable stress and wreak havoc in our personal life/health. Overload is widespread in niche jobs with long hours filled with hard labor (such as cargo handlers or ramp agents) but professions such as flight crew, and air traffic control are not immune to the effects, either. While not quite as physically demanding, both are intrinsically stressful professions with strict training and health requirements. Rigid crew rest regulations now protect pilots, but we cannot forget what it took for aviation to get there.
Especially for entry-level job newcomers, the opportunity for overtime is particularly enticing - and it’s not hard to see why. First, the financial incentive of picking up a shift is hard to ignore. Working overtime also gives us a feeling of control over the power of our finances, even at the expense of sacrificing personal time. At first, when I was working long hours as a line service technician, I could not get enough overtime. However, as time passed, the compulsion faded, and I soon began to value time over money.
Everyone is aware of the staffing crisis our industry faces (particularly flight crews), and many forecast analysts predict the situation to worsen in the coming years. At the same time, we are emerging from the most trying period of our lives, both professional and private. For most of us, while others were working remotely, we either had to work in person or were furloughed outright.
Some markets are reporting unprecedented demand, and we seem to be operating more than our system's capacity. As a primary example, American Airlines has ended profitable service to smaller cities, such as Ithaca and Long Island, NY, due to a lack of regional pilots.
Perceived lack of control. Fair warning, this is not the first and will not be the last time I talk about control theory. We must first choose which locus of control to accept to understand how much we are impacted. In 1954, psychologist Julian Rotter suggested that a system of rewards and punishments determined our behavior. Our locus of control is the extent to which an individual feels they control the events in their life, either internal or external.
A person with an internal locus of control believes they are the primary factor in determining their outcomes. If anything happens, it is their responsibility to fix it. These people are more responsible for their actions, believe they can change that within their purview, and are happier and healthier.
Inversely, a person with an external locus of control will blame outside forces for their circumstances - anything wrong happening is just the universe at work. Someone with an external locus of control will feel powerless, lack motivation, and appear to go through the motions. Overall, their productivity will fall far short compared to the first individual.
Most of us who work in aviation have predominantly an external locus of control. Maybe I am biased, as until I learned about the power of control theory a year or two ago, I was the poster child of “woe is me.” I am working on that, but just looking around, it is disheartening to see so many defeated colleagues. Both airlines and airports operate in a complex system. Between working delayed flights, the previously discussed workforce shortage, or just a disconnect with management, there is often little we can ultimately control. No matter what comes our way, our responsibility is to be there through thick and thin.
Lack of control is further compounded in a micromanaging environment. The science behind the adverse effects of micromanagement is extensive and hard to deny, yet it is so prevalent in our industry for some reason. Any perceived increase in productivity is often overshadowed by a troubled workforce and a suffering culture - unsustainable in the long run.
Most of the crew already does not have a say so much that when control is further relinquished, most often in conflict with our personal opinions, a feeling of helplessness emerges. In this circumstance, one person's pride is prioritized over the pride of an organization. It is essential to understand micromanagers will often not be aware of the over-controlling nature of their work. Ultimately, the message sent is “my way is the right way” - absurd considering the complexity of our environment.
Reward. First, I’ll address the elephant in the room. I can name countless jobs where responsibility and compensation are entirely out of balance, likely including yours. I am not quite as motivated by financial incentives, but that’s not to say I do not wholly understand why others are. Looking beyond finances, intrinsic rewards often make or break an employee’s long-term commitment. Much like our first high school relationship (bad joke, I get it), those who do not feel appreciated will look elsewhere. Managers are ultimately responsible for how rewards impact us.
Many of you may know former Navy SEAL Jocko Willink, who has much work dedicated to leadership development. I have read both of his books (Extreme Ownership and The Dichotomy of Leadership, the latter of which I find the most influential) and found something he mentioned in a Ted Talk not long ago. In a skills-based profession, as most aviation jobs are, many managers earn their roles based on their proficiency in that skill or some ulterior accomplishment. Hiring for skill leads to many managers who choose not to develop as leaders learning to connect and lead a team, and unfortunately, many more managers think they do not have to. Once you lose a team, getting them back is hard (if not impossible).
Community. What kind of “neighborhood” is your airport? People are significantly influenced by who they are surrounded by. At least in my experience, work culture is severely overlooked by organizations in our industry. There is some correlation between an airline's service, for instance, and the work culture.
For example, without getting into specifics, people close to me who work for ultra-low-cost carriers (not exactly known for customer service) report rather startling work experiences. Meanwhile, airlines like JetBlue and Southwest seek to maximize employee value. JetBlue even lets their employees pick the funny names you see on their aircraft!
A community can make all the difference making it through periods of burnout. I’ll use an analogy one of my coaches used to help me understand the true impact of a cohesive team; on a selfish team where people act independently, 1 + 1 will always equal 2. However, the multiplying effect is innumerable when a team builds trust and works together. In every team setting, one or two people always make achieving this difficult. Despite the obvious challenge, the more someone can learn to connect and find common ground, the more they can bring out the best in even the most miserable people.
Low morale is contagious, and a burnt-out individual is often just a tiny part of a larger "burnout culture." According to O.C. Tanner’s 2020 Global Culture Report, a “poor company culture” increases the incidence rate for moderate-to-severe burnout by 157%. The reality is there is not much one individual can do if not in a position of power, which is one reason why the primary indicator of a burnout culture is a prolonged turnover rate. I am not talking about isolated cases; when talented people continuously seek employment elsewhere, there is an underlying cultural problem. There is always more than one factor when someone leaves, but it’s hard to deny the common denominator.
Fairness. Think about it - do you feel you are held to the same standards as others? Do you think your bosses treat you fairly compared to other areas of the organization? Managers should be expected to lead by example, but if others are held to different standards (including their own), earning your team's respect becomes difficult. For example, a manager who speaks to an employee about being late should not be known for tardiness. The idea that people can act a certain way because they have earned such privileges or paid their dues is antiquated. Still, a new emphasis in leadership development puts leading by example back at the forefront.
For those with a passive personality, fairness may lead to burnout. Navigating rough waters in an industry full of type-A characters is not always a winning battle for them. They will constantly find themselves in compromising positions unless they learn to adapt. Unfortunately, many bosses feast on these individuals - they are not a threat and will do anything that is asked. In this situation, the best thing to do is often the hardest - the only way to deal with unfair treatment is to speak up. Just like burnout, conflict is inevitable and something that must be managed.
Values mismatch. I saved the best for last. To some extent, what someone values will likely differ from that of our colleagues - usually a non-issue. But if what you value differs from your organization, motivation and productivity will suffer. Life is ever-changing, and these dynamic variables are subject to change over time. What you love when you are first hired is often very different from what you value after 5-10 years, and the same can be said for the influential people in your organization. As these values (literally and metaphorically) shift, they can only reach a certain point until the weight becomes too much and you begin looking for a more harmonious opportunity.
Mismatched values are not always a deteriorating condition. In 2017, four paying United Airlines passengers were forced off a plane (one forcibly) to make room for four deadheading employees. The incident was widely covered in the media and talked about for a significant time. Significant adverse events damage morale and can have employees questioning their role. Life moves on, but people do not forget. This is not to say that every mismatch of values is a conflict of morality. It could be something as simple as a shift in management or a misallocation of resources; it all depends on what you are willing to tolerate.
How We Can Fix It
Thankfully, we have a significant say in how we handle the effects of burnout. Do not forget that the variables above constantly shift as conditions change, and just as a pilot makes corrections during landing, we are responsible for doing the same. The more factors one takes responsibility for, the more likely that person is to emerge from and prevent burnout. Below are examples of good habits to help replenish physical and emotional energy and our capacity to focus.
Focus on personal health, such as nutrition and exercise. Often these are the first to go.
Prioritize sleep habits, and consider how your sleep schedule is compromised when picking up shifts.
Lean into what makes you happy. Think about what this looks like outside of work, even if it is as simple as journaling or reading.
Try to live outside of your comfort zone. Do that *thing* you have meant to do for years but have not gotten around to. This will be particularly challenging but worth it in the end.
Be thorough. Make sure you are making your bed, brushing your teeth, doing the dishes, or anything that might have slipped into your daily routine. Not only are the positive effects apparent (I should not have to tell you it is essential to shower), but this also helps build back some control over the feeling of burnout.
Leave work at work. This is easier said than done for those who are “always on,” but there needs to be some daily separation between work and life. It may feel good to come home and let loose your frustration on whoever is willing to listen but consider how this impacts your work/life balance.
Get a dog. :)
While helping when control shifts back to us off the clock, these hardly address the root cause of burnout found at work. According to Dr. Shainaz Firfiray (Warwick Business School), factors such as lack of autonomy or clarity in job roles and expectations of taking on heavier workloads with fewer resources and less support are external influences that leave us feeling powerless.
At this point, you must look closely at your mindset and assumptions to consider changing your perspective. Begin to ask questions about how work is impacting you directly and what you can do to relieve the weight of stressors. Can you delegate tasks to free up emotional capacity for other, more important ones? Can we build other relationships to counterbalance the ones that drain us?
Part of our analysis includes identifying aspects that have turned into stressors. For instance, unrealistic expectations will drive the best of us crazy. Do not feel you must act as a servant - opening dialogue with your superiors is crucial to developing a two-way professional relationship. Sometimes, this may require helping your boss see your perspective or outright saying no. Saying no is not as startling as it may sound, and plenty of reading material will help you learn how to do this correctly. Just as you are not perfect, neither is your boss and without the proper context, you may be asked to complete an unreasonable task. However, building an effective relationship with your superiors will help protect you should situations like this arise.
Further developing connections with your colleagues will help you feel grounded and supported, particularly when you lack support elsewhere. Many of us like to keep work and personal lives separate, and that is entirely understandable, but professional relationships must still be developed. Sometimes, mutual “trauma” will help bring a team together. Think about every movie where a team overcomes an incompetent coach to succeed in their end goal ultimately. To succeed in their end goal, whatever it takes, we are all in this together as a team and responsible for helping each other maximize our potential.
The Last Resort
Earlier, I briefly mentioned poor workplace culture. Let’s say we have exhausted all our options and looked at ourselves and our work up and down - yet our situation is still not improving. Robert Ordever, Managing Director at O.C. Tanner, defines poor culture as “one with a lack of trust in the leadership team, insufficient progression opportunities, and an uninspiring company purpose.” These are further compounded by external factors such as difficult economic times with “general uncertainty and job security fears.” No matter the effort, one individual will not change a compromised culture.
Sometimes the root of burnout is as simple as being in a job unfit for too long. Whether culture is the underlying problem in our feeling out of place or not is for you to determine, but the responsibility to improve your position does not diminish.
Due to the uncertainty when it comes time to leave a job, most of us take considerable time to decide when to seek other employment. But, once that conclusion has been reached, psychology tells us there is no going back. Remaining productive at work is difficult for someone with a foot out the door. Do not forget your last days of employment will determine how you are remembered.
Regardless of your profession, the traveling public's safety is our collective responsibility. Even for the most experienced individuals, burnout must be continuously managed. We are building good habits and maximizing the impact of those that bring you joy will build sustainability in your career wherever it should take you. Do not forget, work is work, and we only go around this planet once. When put into perspective, problems that may seem critical are often minor in hindsight. Most of our lives are spent at work - make it enjoyable.
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