It's hard not to love Steven Slater, the JetBlue attendant who on Monday made a theatrical departure from his 20-year career in the airline industry. His sliding, beer-in-hand bow-out has captivated a global audience because the act was at once so universal and so brilliantly specific to the world of air travel.
The story got me wondering: Is there something particularly unbearable - and dangerous, from a mental and physical health perspective - about being a flight attendant? Aspects of the job that make it more meltdown-inducing than other taxing occupations? Most of us would answer yes, and a recent Wired article provides some scientific backing for that intuition. The key, it seems, is a particular blend of low status and lack of control:
The recurring theme in the self-reports of [this type of worker] isn’t the sheer amount of stress - it’s the total absence of control. Researchers call it the “demand-control” model of stress, in which the damage caused by chronic stress depends not just on the demands of the job but on the extent to which we can control our response to those demands. “The man or woman with all the emails, the city lawyer who works through the night has high demands,” [Michael] Marmot writes. “But if he or she has a high degree of control over work, it is less stressful and will have less impact on health.” (This helps explain why the women with mean bosses and menial work [show] the highest incidence of heart disease)... While a relentlessly intense job like a senior executive position leads to a slightly increased risk of heart disease and death, a job with no control is significantly more dangerous.
Flight attendants work within a context that's at once rigid (cramped quarters, minute-to-minute schedules, hierarchical social structure) and totally unpredictable (passenger behavior, weather, security concerns, flight delays). Considering those conditions, I'm guessing - and hoping, because I really like the guy - that Slater's exit brings him better health and happiness in the long-term.
Photo by debaird
Related: Robert Sapolsky on stress and your health