Employee Turbulence: How To Help Frontline Workers In The Airline Industry And Beyond

Airline workers are on the front lines of employee stress. Here’s what everyone can learn from them.
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Few employee groups have been hit as hard by pandemic-era stress and turnover as those working in the airline industry. The travel and leisure industry accounted for a staggering 39% of all U.S. job losses from Covid-19, which has led to employee shortages and overworked staff. Add to that the constant battles around unmasked passengers and exposure to increasing incidents of “air rage” in flight when enforcing safety protocols, and it’s clear: airline employees are on the front line of the workplace stress epidemic. It’s a huge problem that requires out of the box solutions—solutions that leaders in all industries can learn from and deploy.

The organizations that are helping frontline workers deal with work-related stress most successfully are looking at the problem in a holistic way. They understand that increasing pay is not enough, and they see it more as a culture-and-people issue than a compensation issue. Delta Air Lines is one company that is doing a great job helping its frontline workers remain engaged during this extremely challenging time. In an industry besieged with furloughs, conflicts around in-air mask requirements and ongoing stress related to being a frontline worker, Delta Air Lines has remained in the elite top 5% of companies in its ability to retain quality employees and 87% of employees say it’s a “great place to work.” 

So what are the leaders at Delta and other successful organizations doing? Here are some of the things I’ve seen the best executive teams focusing on as they help employees navigate work-related stress. Every single one of the below leadership actions can be implemented today, by any organization in any industry, to help their employees.

Lead by example. Too often, the rank and file feel an absence of support from managers when it comes to self-care. This may be stated overtly or implied, as is the case when superiors don’t participate in well-being with their employees—in fact new Grokker Innovation Labs research showed that only 37% of leaders participate in well-being initiatives alongside employees. This is a huge mistake. The best way to show employees that it’s okay for them to engage in physical and emotional self-care is for them to see their managers doing the same. Leading by example gives employees permission to take care of themselves. This also helps to foster feelings of connection and trust between employees and managers, which alleviates work-related stress. After all, when leaders connect with employees as whole people (not just as cogs in the corporate wheel), employees feel more able to come to them for help to resolve issues they may be experiencing in the workplace.

It’s key for leaders to bring their whole selves to work, and to be unafraid to be honest and authentic with employees about how they’re managing their own struggles. This type of authenticity helps to create a psychologically safe work environment where employees feel more able to acknowledge and work together with colleagues and superiors to solve the very issues causing their increased stress.

Encourage social connection. Employees who are socially connected in the workplace have a higher overall feeling of well-being, are better at engaging customers and produce higher quality work. Unfortunately, less than half of the leaders in Grokker Innovation Labs’ research report that they encourage social interactions and connections between employees. Absent daily human connection—whether by providing social messaging tools during work, or opportunities to socialize during the workday or at events—positive culture is virtually impossible to foster. Managers can improve team culture and the emotional well-being of employees by making it easy and fun for coworkers to connect around shared values, interests and goals. This also helps employees to communicate with each other more seamlessly, which can go a long way toward alleviating work-related stress.

Offer flexibility. Frontline workers are exhausted. They work in industries that have experienced mass layoffs, and as a result they are often asked to work longer hours to compensate for being understaffed. While frontline workers cannot work from home, leadership can provide greater flexibility and understanding.

Flexibility for frontline workers will look different than it does for knowledge workers, but with a little imagination it is possible. Perhaps it means providing greater transparency about upcoming deadlines which may require longer shifts and allowing extra time off before the crunch time begins to bank sleep and pre-energize. Perhaps it means allowing them more freedom to choose which teams they’re assigned to (which may also serve a dual purpose of encouraging broader social connection, allowing workers to be exposed to new colleagues or team up with the colleagues they feel closest to), or perhaps it means giving them the option of working four 10-hour days instead of five 8-hour days or swapping schedules more freely with colleagues without requiring supervisory approval. Whatever it looks like for your particular organization, frontline workers are desperate to have more control and more flexibility over their work and giving them this flexibility (as well as a sense of control) can go a long way toward minimizing the stress they’re feeling on a daily basis.

Frontline workers have it extremely hard right now and unfortunately, many leaders in these frontline industries are not well-equipped to help employees deal with their work-related stress. It’s still considered taboo by many leaders to ask employees about how they’re feeling emotionally and mentally, or to take interest in their physical health. This can create a work environment where employees feel that managers are uninterested or even hostile toward their well-being. However, by focusing on 1) establishing trust, 2) encouraging social connection and 3) allowing flexibility whenever possible, leaders can make a difference and help employees navigate the work-related stress crisis.

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