Pilot’s meltdown puts spotlight on high-stress work environments

Mar 29 2012 - 7:10am

After a few workplace violence events in mail centers, "going postal" entered the lexicon.

This week, thanks to a widely shared newspaper headline about the in-flight meltdown of a JetBlue pilot, we got, "This is your captain freaking."

Though not particularly fair or nice, the shorthand descriptions of workplace outbursts are here to stay.

Even if such violent incidents are exceedingly rare, the ever-present threat remains. And because the most recent threat happened in a jet hurtling across the sky, it ramped up public concern:

What to do when the captain leaves the controls and starts ranting in the aisle of the plane after the co-pilot locks him out of the cockpit?

The only recourse at the moment is to do what the crew and passengers did on a Tuesday flight from New York City: Subdue him and land the plane.

A co-pilot and another pilot who happened to be a passenger took the controls and made an emergency landing in Amarillo, Texas, where the pilot was handed over to medical authorities.

In any incident like that, after the emergency response it's time to take another look at the broad topics of employee mental health and fitness-for-duty assessments.

JetBlue, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Federal Aviation Administration and the Transportation Safety Administration are looking into the details and background of the captain, identified as Clayton Osbon, an employee who previously gave "no indication" of trouble.

JetBlue chief executive Dave Barger said Osbon was a "consummate professional." But he has been relieved of flying duty and on Wednesday was criminally charged with interfering with the flight crew, punishable by up to 20 years in prison and up to $250,000 in fines.

Meanwhile, the scary event put a magnifying glass on high-stress work environments, which can occur in any industry but have been most recently highlighted in aviation and military jobs.

Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales last week was charged with 17 counts of premeditated murder for killing 17 civilians in two southern Afghanistan villages earlier in March. Some observers suggested he snapped in response to the stress of repeated active-duty deployments in a war zone.

For JetBlue, the captain was the second worker to make the news for erratic behavior. In August 2010, a flight attendant popped a beer, deployed an inflatable emergency chute and slid from the aircraft after an on-ground dispute with a passenger.

American Airlines also had a recent incident. On March 9, a flight attendant was removed from a plane in Dallas when she began ranting about 9/11 and plane safety.

The incidents were commonly described as reactions to continuing job stress.

According to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, 40 percent of American workers say their jobs are very or extremely stressful.

Some jobs, of course, are more stressful than others. An analysis by CareerCast, a job-search portal, pegged enlisted military soldier, firefighter and airline pilot as the three most stressful occupations. Physical peril was deemed a big contributor, as was having one's own or other people's lives in one's hands.

But other stress factors included travel, uncertain income, deadlines, working in the public eye, competitiveness, physical demands, environmental conditions, hazards and meeting the public.

Any of those unchecked influences could cause someone to snap.

"Unfortunately, we deal with it all the time," said Yael Schneiderman, with Harris Rothenberg International, a human resources consulting company.

That company said it had received a 120 percent increase over the last four years in referrals from employers to evaluate workers through company employee assistance programs.

The requests usually were precipitated by a crisis in the workplace, including threats of suicide, violence toward others, psychotic episodes or other mental breakdowns.

They are a "byproduct of workplace stress," said Randy Martin, Harris Rothenberg's director of clinical services and a licensed psychologist.

Arguably, there's plenty of stress in the airline industry with its strict demands for high security, technical safety and being on time.

Airlines do require pilots to undergo psychological testing, drug testing and regular physical exams. Medical certificates must be renewed annually for pilots under 40 and every six months for those over 40.

Even that scrutiny can't guarantee protection against an outburst or breakdown, as the JetBlue situation showed.

Coincidentally, the Air Line Pilots Association last week issued a statement asking for "enhanced security screening for professional flight crews" at a U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing. But that statement focused on a "risk-based approach" that would allow the pilots themselves to be "fully trained to protect their flight deck as federal law enforcement officers."

There's no argument that pilots are in highly stressful jobs, but there are other workers who feel stress as well. Experts cite particularly the highly regulated industries such as airlines, nuclear power plants and commercial driving.

"Those employees are reluctant to come forward to reveal any problems they may be having," Martin said. "They're afraid of being taken off the job."

That fear is exacerbated when workers have financial or family problems or work in labor markets in which they're afraid to take time away from work.

"Employees in the past who might have taken time off aren't taking that time," Martin said. "Add in that they're not sleeping as much or they're not exercising, so that lack of outlets to manage stress builds up and backs people into a psychological corner."

If a troubled worker is highly placed in an organization -- such as pilots in an airline hierarchy -- it's also less likely that co-workers will come forward with their concerns about erratic behavior or other signs of trouble.

"When you're talking about people in powerful positions, you'll often find that employees are reluctant to come forward," Miller said. "They fear retaliation because they know where the power lies in the organization."

When trouble is sensed, the best response from employers, often through human resource departments, is to request a thorough fitness-for-duty evaluation. That includes an independent medical examination by a forensically trained psychiatrist or psychologist along with background interviews of family, co-workers and other medical providers of the individual.

After all the interviews and testing, the examiner makes a recommendation about treatment and possible ability to return to work.

 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)

Visit The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.) at www.kansascity.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

 

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