The Cabin Crew branch of IMPACT trade union has published the final report of its Health & Wellbeing Survey, designed to give a detailed picture of the state of health and mental wellbeing of Aer Lingus cabin crew. The report, by Dr Richard Wynne of the Work Research Centre, is based on a detailed survey taken over a 28 day period in July 2014.
The report reveals that, in response to the question “On how many days have you gone to work while sick in the past 28 days?” almost half of respondents reported that they had worked at least one day while sick. Moreover, 25.5% of respondents said that they had done so three or more times during the survey period.
IMPACT assistant general secretary Michael Landers explained, “The survey was commissioned because IMPACT’s cabin crew members had previously expressed concerns about the possible negative effects of working conditions on health and, in particular, about ongoing changes in work procedures in relation to rostering, sick leave arrangements and occupational stress.”
Mr Landers said the report shows the main reason cabin crew continued to work while ill was that they wanted to avoid the company’s disciplinary process (39.4%) while 28.6% responded that their illness wasn’t serious enough for them to miss work.
“There is a very high level of dissatisfaction with the company’s sickness absence procedures. Just over 40% of cabin crew responding to the survey said that they were required to see the company doctor on the first day of their absence from work due to illness. This helps to explain the high levels of ‘presenteeism’ among cabin crew, and raises genuine concerns about health and safety of staff and passengers if people are continuing to work through periods of illness. It also indicates that actual rates of absence are probably underestimated.” he said.
Just over 20% of respondents said they continued to work because they didn’t want to let their colleagues down, with 17% citing financial reasons for continuing to work despite being ill.
Mr Landers said that the report also reveals significant problems with sleep disruption, and a high level of dependence on sleep medication, with over a third of respondents reporting that they took sleep medication once a week or more often. “The report also shows significant problems with digestive disorders, very low levels of psychological wellbeing, high levels of workplace stress relating to management culture and the physical work environment,” he said.
Rosters continue to present difficulties for Aer Lingus cabin crew. Over 80% of respondents reported that they hadn’t had the opportunity for a meal break while working, and that this had occurred, on average, just over four times during the survey period. More than half of respondents reported that this had occurred three or more times during the period.
Mr Landers said “During the survey period a large majority worked flight duty periods of more than nine hours, while almost a third had worked at least one flight duty period of more than 13 hours. Most experienced flight delays, difficulties in taking meal breaks and duty swaps were also difficult to achieve.
“Most cabin crew reported obtaining the minimum rest period (12 hours off between shifts under flight time limitation rules) at least once in the period. Overall, levels of satisfaction with the roster system were low, and remain a very significant problem for cabin crew staff,” he said.
The survey also assessed levels of stress at work, using methods developed by the Health & Safety Authority, and shows high levels of stress arising from poor communications between management and staff, with 34% of respondents describing morale at work as being ‘very low’.
Mr Landers said that, overall, approximately 38% of cabin crew reported poor wellbeing. “Compared against data collected by the Work Research Centre and ESRI, the survey indicates that cabin crew report among the highest levels of psychological distress of all occupation groups, including teachers and health care workers,” he said.
The most negative responses related to lack of support when under pressure at work (46.7%), and the employer’s lack of flexibility to allow staff to manage non-work commitments, such as family and dependents (41.7%). Respondents also criticised the lack of positive and formal feedback from management.
The report’s author, Dr Richard Wynne, has recommended that a joint union/management approach on health and safety is necessary. Mr Landers added, “This would require a safety-focused approach to monitoring rosters for health indicators and the particular effects on sleep disruption, as well as hazard identification for physical risks in the workplace.
“Arrangements for taking meals during the working day need to improve. We also need a fresh approach to managing attendance at work. The company must change the emphasis from its current focus on control measures and focus instead on improving attendance through improving underlying health and wellbeing,” he said.
Mr Landers said that the survey reveals the price paid by Aer Lingus staff for maintaining the levels of service upon which the airline has built its reputation. “These are workers whose loyalty to the company has seen it through the worst of times, returned it to profitability, and made Aer Lingus an attractive acquisition for its parent company IAG.
“However, it has come at a cost to the health and wellbeing of cabin crew, and this is an issue we want to work on closely with Aer Lingus management. If management ignore the results of this survey, the ongoing effect will be corrosive for both management and Aer Lingus workers,” he said.