Steven Slater catapulted from obscurity to national folk hero status in one fell swoop – in almost the literal sense of that phrase. The frustrated airline employee seems to have caught the imagination of everyone who has ever fantasized about a “mad as hell and not going to take it any more” moment – and who among us hasn’t had one of those?
But where an overwhelming preponderance of the nation sees Slater as a working class hero, we see a desperate scream for help. We have a few words for his employer: get that guy to an EAP!
We kind of hate to be the grown up in the room when everyone in the world seems to be having so much fun with this story…and with other infamous “I quit” stories — but we think it’s important to take a more sober look. When employees exhibit explosive rage and poor impulse control, there is usually something else going on – and it’s frequently a problem that is rooted in an employee’s personal life that spills over into the workplace.
If emerging passenger reports are true, Slater’s bad day may have started before he even got to the plane. Some passengers said that Slater came on board with the injury and that it didn’t happen during the altercation with a passenger. Other passengers said his demeanor was “stern” and “rude” from the outset of the flight and said that he seemed distracted. Upon his arrest, police reported that, “His eyes were bloodshot, he smelled of alcohol and he was unsteady on his feet.”
We can’t ascertain these reports or the time line in the Slater incident, but alcohol abuse is certainly a common culprit in many instances of problem work performance. And in the case of an airline flight attendant, who would qualify as a “safety sensitive employee” under Department of Transportation rules, any use of alcohol within 8 hours prior to reporting for service would be prohibited; in addition, a safety sensitive employee must not report for duty or remain in service while under the influence of alcohol – and could be subject to random drug testing.
News reports also indicated that the stress Slater exhibited may have been compounded by a truly difficult personal situation. Slater has been the primary a caretaker of elderly parents. A post on the parenting blog Strollerderby suggests that Slater may have been suffering from caretaker fatigue:
It has since been revealed that Slater’s mom is suffering from lung cancer and that the flight attendant had been commuting between his New York residence and her home in Southern California to take care of her. He was also a caretaker for his father, a retired airline pilot who died two years ago after a long battle with Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
One of the major symptoms of caretaker or compassion fatigue is emotional outbursts and a high stress level. It sure sounds like Slater qualifies. Longtime family neighbor Ron Franz certainly seems to think so, telling reporters “He cared for his father during a protracted illness and here he is doing it again and trying to juggle that with a stressful job,” adding “I don’t know what his motivation was. I am just saying those are the conditions that may have influenced him.”
On Tuesday, mom Diane Slater, herself a former flight attendant, came forward to issue a statement of support for her son as she was leaving her house for chemotherapy, saying she would have “snapped worse.”
This rings true to us. It’s estimated that between 15 and 20 million U.S. employees are caring for aging parents and that caregiving results in more than $30 billion a year in lost productivity. We’ve frequently posted about the high toll that caretaking imposes on the employee and the employer alike.
How an EAP could help
Certainly, this situation seems benign relative to a horrifying recent instance of employee frustration, but poor impulse control and rage in the workplace really aren’t matters to be taken lightly. Reports indicate that Slater has been suspended but not fired. JetBlue noted the incident on their blog and public comments on the post show there is widespread sympathy for Slater (“Give the guy his job back.”) Of course, employee privacy would dictate extreme caution on the part of the company in any public statements about Slater or any other employee’s performance.
JetBlue needs to make a judgment about its next steps based not on what will be popular with a bemused public, but on weighing and balancing its policies and principles, its duty to protect and serve the public, and its obligations to its employees. It could be that events have transpired too far for this employee to be salvaged, but we can attest that proper and timely referrals to an EAP can often help to salvage a long-term employee’s position, even under some very difficult circumstances. The die may well be cast in this case, but the employer take-away should be to stay alert for signs of stress, burn-out, personal problems, substance abuse or other issues that may be impeding employee performance – and utilize your EAP!