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Health Toll on Flight Attendants

Female Attendants' Poor Health Linked to Sexual Harassment
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WebMD Health News

Dec. 21, 2005 -- For female flight attendants, sexual harassment by passengers takes a toll - affecting how they view their own health.

Harassed attendants are three times more likely to rate their own health as poor, new research shows. Many have been seriously depressed; some have considered suicide.

This might be "due to the constant nature of this type of harassment, and its effect may be compounded by other types of disagreeable passenger relationships that affect the well-being of flight attendants," writes Terri Ballard, PhD, with Instituto Superiore di Sanita in Rome. Her study appears in this month's issue of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

Big Problem, Little Attention

It's a workplace issue that has not received great attention. "Although work as a flight attendant is often stressful, tiring, and disruptive, little has been written on the psychological health effects of this type of work," she notes.

A handful of surveys have attempted to understand the well-being of female flight attendants. One study of American female flight attendants found that job stressors such as mental and psychological demands, imbalance between job demands and outside obligations, low supervisor support, and job dissatisfaction were indications of psychological distress.

Another study of Italian female flight attendants showed that their mental health had much to do with various job stressors, including dealing with difficult passengers -- as well as balancing their roles as mothers, partners, and community leaders.

Work stress has been shown to affect how people perceive their own health, notes Ballard. A survey of Canadian women in high-stress jobs showed that they were twice as likely to rate their health as poor or fair. Psychological distress, especially depression, was linked with absences from work.

Another recent study showed that among Italian flight crews, there was an increased risk of suicide among female flight attendants. That prompted Ballard's study published today -- looking at mental health, including depression, anxiety, and job satisfaction.

Sexual Harassment on the Plane

Her study involved 1,955 female flight attendants - all with the Italian national airline Italia -- who currently work or had previously worked for the airline between January 1965 and December 1995.

Each completed a survey asking about a variety of issues: job satisfaction and sexual harassment in the workplace -- either by a superior or colleague, or a passenger. They were also asked about their family status (children/significant other) -- and how they perceived their own health.

Among Ballard's findings regarding current flight attendants:

  • 47% perceived their health as fair or poor.
  • 17% felt psychological distress.
  • 10% had no form of social support.
  • 39% had a history of serious depression.
  • 14% had suicidal thoughts.
  • 3% had attempted suicide.

They also reported three times more psychological distress -- with low job satisfaction playing a strong role, she reports.

Having frequent tension over child care was another strong factor in their current distress. That is likely due to conflicts between family and work demands, which could be a source of stress and depression, she writes.

Many flight attendants described their work as "crushing" and "destabilizing," Ballard notes.

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