Sleepless in the Skies

By Kirstin Kelley

Getting enough is crucial to being able to perform at work, and yet some of the most dangerous and important jobs are performed by the most sleep-challenged: shift workers. The United States increasingly depends on shift work, and yet those whose work schedule is outside the typical 9-5 face a constant struggle to get enough sleep, despite having to perform surgery, drive cabs, and steward travelers to the far flung corners of the earth.

Ever since she was a child, Alyssa Renner had always dreamed of being a flight attendant. After graduating from college, she finally achieved her dream. 23-year-old Renner of Fort Lauderdale, Florida loves the job—especially since she works for an international company and often has the chance to travel to and explore new cities. But that doesn’t mean everything about her job is glamorous.

Working as a flight attendant is especially hard on Renner’s sleep schedule. Trans-Atlantic flights require her to stay up all night and forego a regular sleep pattern. In addition to the work schedule, flight attendants can face other obstacles to getting enough sleep. The chance to explore new places on her “rest days” takes a serious toll, says Renner. Rather than use these days to sleep, Renner uses them to spend time with her colleagues and to see new places she couldn’t afford to otherwise, explorations that often include nights out drinking, “I have to say that I drink more now then I did in college,” she admitted. “But hey, maybe I just didn’t drink that much in college.”

Renner is lucky in that she is based out of a fairly affordable city. Others in her line of work often rent shared spaces with bunk beds, called crash pads, which are affordable, but not terribly private. Salaries in the industry, especially in the first few years on the job, are low, and flight attendants are often asked to take on extra duties unpaid.

On average, Renner works approximately 96 flight hours in a month. But her company only pays her a salary of 65 hours. Renner says flight attendants aren’t paid for the three hours of work before and after the flight. “Our paid time begins when the doors close and we push back from the gate,” she said. “So when you greet your flight attendants during boarding, none of us are actually getting paid for that time.”

In a typical week, Renner works an average of five flights, so that unpaid time can really add up. To make up the difference, some of her colleagues work extra jobs at their home base, but the erratic schedule makes it really challenging. Fortunately for Renner, her job pays enough to support her, and she’s found some creative ways to cut costs, like travelling with food instead of buying all of her meals when she’s away from home.

Renner knows that taking care of her body is crucial; the pressure onboard a plane makes it harder for oxygen to get into a person’s bloodstream, making people feel fatigued. For people like flight attendants, who engage in hard physical labor during the flight, the difference can take a serious toll on their energy level. But airlines know that this is a problem, says Renner. The airline she works for specifically asks flight attendants to call out if they haven’t rested or are getting sick. Fatigue is grounds for a leave of absence, and if a flight attendant comes to work fatigued, the company has to report it to the aviation authority.

Finding a good balance between enjoying the opportunities her job provides and taking care of her body physically, especially getting regular quality sleep, takes real effort.

Tags:  shift worker series Sleep Sleep & Work

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