Just over a week ago, a member of Emirates cabin crew jumped from a balcony in the airline’s global head office in what appeared to be an attempted suicide. The crew member was seriously injured but thankfully survived the fall, later telling friends and acquaintances that he jumped to highlight what he perceived to be not only his own unfair treatment at the hands of the Dubai-based airline but also that of the entire 20,000 strong cabin crew community.
It didn’t take long for observers to criticise the victim – he had, after all, been called into Emirates’ headquarters to appeal his dismissal from the airline. We don’t know why exactly he had been sacked but some of his batchmates say he wasn’t the most studious of new entrant cabin crew when he first joined the airline.
It’s all too early easy to undermine the victim in this case. To say that he was troubled or perhaps even a troublemaker. To absolve the airline of any responsibility. But maybe Emirates does have a very real responsibility towards its cabin crew? A responsibility that it’s been shirking for too long.
Being a flight attendant is a profession that is tough enough at the best of times – research studies consistently show elevated rates of suicide, depression and other mental health conditions amongst cabin crew. A 2012 study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) even suggested that suicide rates amongst flight attendants were 1.5 times higher than the general population, while deaths from alcoholism were over double the rate seen in the general population.
Researchers have cited long and irregular working hours, sexual harassment, and a lack of employee protections as just some of the reasons for poor mental health amongst cabin crew. Sleep disorders, fatigue, anxiety and depression have all been shown to have the potential to get worse the longer a flight attendant has been in the business.
Every airline has a responsibility towards their employees – the unique challenges that come with being a flight attendant must be recognised by airlines and appropriate support mechanisms should be introduced. Some airlines are incredibly good at supporting their crew, while others need to get better and some simply play lip service.
Thankfully, in many cases flight attendants have other avenues to turn to – their friends and family, a charity or even a labor union can all provide support and assistance in times of crisis.
Yet Emirates’ largely expat cabin crew community don’t have access to this kind of support network. They are living far away from their family and many of their friends are themselves highly transient cabin crew. There is no labor union to speak of and depression and suicide is still very much a taboo subject throughout the Middle East – in fact, suicide is still technically a criminal offence in the United Arab Emirates.
There’s no doubt that the pressure piled on cabin crew in the region is immense. We talk regularly about how Emirates cabin crew are some of the hardest working in the entire industry – the rewards for working so hard may be good but the toll it can take on one’s mental health shouldn’t be underestimated.
New policies are only exacerbating the situation. Many crew say they are scared to report unfit for duty because they fear dismissal, while others claim the company has refused to provide emergency leave when close family members have passed away. That’s on top of other concerns linked to a previous suicide including a controversial appearance management programme and near-forced retirement for cabin crew who reach 50 years old.
And the support offered by airlines in the Gulf to their staff in times of crisis is said to be patchy at best. Instead, Emirates should recognise the unique issues faced by its large expat workforce and offer compassionate solutions that support and nurture employees. This is a win-win for everyone – happier crew make for happier passengers.