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Friday, May 24, 2024

Stress and Screener Performance

Introduction by John Halinski TSA Deputy Administrator (Ret.)

Recently, at the AVSEC and Cybersecurity Week in Montreal, I had the opportunity to discuss with Bonnie Kudrick (former TSA and now CEO of HUMANLINK LLC) how the human factor impacts the aviation security screening workforce. Bonnie has been doing exciting things with “the human factor and its impact” on security screening. Bonnie provided me with an article on the stress factors that security screeners face daily and their impact on the workforce’s morale and capability. 

After reading this article, it made enormous sense from a workforce management standpoint. For years, TSA has struggled with low morale, low results from employee surveys, and high stress among its workforces. To TSA’s credit, over the years, it has tried countless measures to boost the morale of its workforce, including training, reorganization, collective bargaining, leadership training, changing to a standard government pay rate and multiple working groups, seminars, offsite, etc., to tackle this issue. The result is continued low employee satisfaction, higher-than-normal attrition, and numerous Human Resources issues. TSA has spent millions of dollars to boost its workforce morale and make it a better place.  

But have we missed the point? Has leadership missed the fact that they must address the elephant in the room, “STRESS”? Current aviation security screening workforces face daily passenger increases to higher than pre-Covid levels. There has been a technological revolution in screening technology in the U.S. and other modern airports. New CT screening systems, automated lanes, and biometric integration into the checkpoint while having the best intentions and will eventually reduce time may have caused more stress to the workforce. The concern has been focused on reducing the stress levels for the passengers, but what is that impact on the workforce? 

Bonnie’s article is a great way to start the discussion. In my opinion, government employees, especially in the security screening world, are criticized more than praised and are generally not appreciated. Let’s not forget that their purpose is to ensure the traveling public’s safety, an incredible responsibility for a 24/7 operation. Just one event or failure could lead to severe or fatal consequences. So, is embracing and understanding the stress the key to a better, and more efficient workforce with better morale? As we build a better travel experience for the passengers let’s not forget that all parts of the aviation workforce must function while understanding and addressing their stress is just as important. The more stress in the security world, the harder it is to identify the threat. 

Stress and Screener Performance

The U.S. State Department has issued a warning to U.S. citizens traveling abroad due to the increased tensions in various locations worldwide. These threats are examples of stressors impacting aviation security screeners. People will still travel, but the international unrest puts more pressure on aviation security workers to be more diligent, and passengers will likely be more tense.    

Mental and physical health have been prioritized more in the American workforce than ever. It has been easy to overlook the fact that employees can experience mental health issues, often exacerbating existing problems. Employees are expected to handle a more rigorous workload; this requires more extensive psychological and physical health measures within the workplace. The COVID-19 pandemic amplified the need for employers to take care of their employees to ensure operations are not disturbed, employees are kept safe and healthy, and employees are committed to their goals and the organization’s Mission. This is particularly important for all screeners working within the aviation security environment. Their work requires them to be on-site and in contact with large groups of people, which is the most stressful aspect of the shift in workplace protocols. 

Passengers contribute to the stress of aviation security workers; as protocols and standard operating procedures change for them, they also change for the passengers. Secondary searches of a person or passenger’s belongings cause stress for the passengers and screeners alike. The lack of understanding of the screening process can cause a great deal of anxiety to those people who don’t travel frequently. The passenger’s lack of intimate knowledge of the screening process can have two effects; first, the passenger gets upset and is rude to the screener, which can negatively impact the screener’s attitude and stress level. Screeners can be taught how to deal with difficult passengers. However, the airports’ ability to influence passenger behavior is nominal.  

Managing the cognitive workload aspect of the screeners’ responsibilities is a high priority. Sensory and perceptual load impact the screeners’ decision-making, vigilance, and attention, which are vital when working within an airport environment. Employers must develop techniques to optimize the various mental and physical attributes necessary in their workplace. This includes attention allocation, logical reasoning, pattern recognition, classification, visual search skills, visual memory strategies, and problem-solving. These should include physiological, psychological, behavioral, cognitive, and environmental assessments.  

Screeners have additional stressors with developing and implementing Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning incorporated into screening technology. First, they are concerned that their jobs will be eliminated or minimized. Secondly, as the technology changes, the need for proper training in its implementation becomes a factor. 

New technology can cause a spike in mental health issues. Often, technology is developed with minimal input from the users. New technology requires comprehensive training to ensure the aviation worker is fully prepared. New procedures that may accompany the technology (understanding what the technology is capable of and not) are essential to instill trust and optimize the use of the technology. Unprepared workers experience a lack of confidence, isolation, diminished commitment, and self-doubt that can lead to depression.   When introducing new technology, an effective socialization strategy needs to be implemented.   

Countries experiencing a shortage of aviation screeners require the existing workforce to work harder and longer hours to screen passengers swiftly and effectively to ensure passengers are on time for their flights while upholding the standards of security set forth by their respective airports. Staff reductions are still an issue today, a ripple effect from the many infection surges and societal changes, including Diversity, Equity, inclusion, and acceptance. While each employee must monitor and recognize their symptoms of stress, they can often be easily overlooked with their attention focused on the Mission. Due to the job that screeners perform and being integral to International Aviation Security, every airport employer benefits when they prioritize the health and wellness of their employees. Understanding that these tasks must be conducted to ensure aviation security, the employer must mitigate these stressors for the screeners. 

Stigma

A stigma is a negative and often unfair social attitude attached to a person or group, often placing shame on them for a perceived deficiency or difference from the perceived norm. 

The stigma attached to mental health is one of the biggest concerns, as employees may feel embarrassed to admit any mental health concerns they might have. 

The effects of stigma can include: 

  • internalization of negative beliefs
  • social isolation
  • low self-esteem
  • hopelessness
  • shame
  • avoiding treatment
  • worsening symptoms
  • discrimination at work
  • unemployment

Research continues to assess the overall mental health of the workforce. However, few studies evaluate mental health impacts in manufacturing, industrial, essential retail, and public service settings. Services have continued to provide the public with essential goods and services throughout the global pandemic and its aftermath. Workers in these fields may suffer increased uncertainty, anxiety, irritation, anger, and denial. It is not uncommon to lack motivation, have trouble sleeping or concentrating, feeling overwhelmed, burned out, and depressed (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, June 2020). Evidence in a study by the NIH suggests that stressors negatively affect working women’s productivity due to unanticipated child and elder care. In sum, this pattern of results shows that the female gender was a consistent predictor of more stressful life events. (Thomas et al. Health and Social Care, 2021). Female screeners are crucial to the operation as they are needed for secondary search protocols of female passengers. 

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor & Statistics, workers with a lower socioeconomic status suffered adverse effects. When compared to those with a higher annual salary, those with lower-than-average annual salaries reported problems such as increased social problems with friends and family and symptoms of depression and anxiety, possibly impacted or intensified by income insecurity. (Thomas et al. Health and Social Care, 2021). 

Work-Life Balance 

Work-life balance connotes a division of work and life. When you’re working, you perform your tasks; when you are home, you prioritize your attention to your personal life.  

This term is a misnomer and can lead to additional anxiety symptoms. Work is a significant part of our lives, and finding HARMONY between work and personal life creates a flexible framework for your life. It is unrealistic to think you can separate your life’s two most important parts. It is essential to find a way to have work and private life co-exist without the concern of one negatively impacting the other. Realizing that work and personal life can integrate instead of opposing each other can help reduce stressors.  

Identify

To fully understand the most prominent stressors for screeners, it is essential to determine if the aviation security workforce understands the signs of stress. Aviation security employers must educate screeners on being able to identify symptoms of prolonged anxiety and how these may make their jobs more difficult. This can be achieved with the following checklist: 

  • Conduct a short baseline survey- 
  • Conduct either virtual or in-person focus groups.
  • Conduct General Anxiety Disorder-7 (GAD) Assessment
  • Assess all data to create mitigation solutions.

Screeners need to make sure they know the precursors. Early intervention is key. 

Address

Once these behaviors have been identified and documented, it is crucial to validate the behaviors identified by the screeners. This includes teaching them to recognize symptoms of stress they may be experiencing (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2021), such as: 

  • Feeling irritation, anger, or being in denial about these feelings
  • Feeling uncertain, nervous, or anxious
  • Lacking motivation
  • Feeling tired, overwhelmed, or burned out.
  • Feeling sad or depressed
  • Having trouble sleeping
  • Having trouble concentrating

The screeners then must be taught to understand the precursors of stress to develop personal intervention strategies. Employers of security screeners should create communications via video in coordination with their training department and management to present to the entire workforce. (?) Additionally, employers should provide education on the consequences of prolonged periods of stress. Finding the “right” communication strategy instills a sense of understanding and compassion that shows the screeners are appreciated and valued. These actions are an investment in helping Security Screeners optimize their performance. 

Recommendations 

This investment is profound as Aviation workers are Integral in Maintaining National and International Security. This is an opportunity for leadership to foster a culture where mental well-being is prioritized.  

There needs to be a culture of acceptance, not a stigma, associated with mental health in the workplace. Senior leadership’s participation in mental health communication and participation in mental health awareness events are critical factors in the acceptance by leadership and executives sharing their own stories regarding mental health issues. Research suggests this provides more “authenticity” and can change the assumptions that talking or seeking help is a liability.  

Investment in resources supporting the health and well-being of Security screeners is vital to national security. Education can provide relevant mental health information on the consequences of prolonged stress and ways for employees to acknowledge when experiencing it. Employees need to be able to answer the question, “How do I know I’m experiencing these symptoms?”  

Fostering Productivity

Productivity is correlated with an increased sense of meaning and understanding of their relationship with the Mission. Additional measures include interactive sessions with employee participation to encourage collaboration with leadership. These actions can help address why they are experiencing stress or lack of motivation. These feelings are valid, and employers need to care about them enough to identify why they feel negative so they can remedy the situation. Modules for acknowledging stress and anxiety in the workplace can include screener participation for a more relatable approach. With more positive feelings in the workplace come higher levels of productivity. 

Identify stress and educate regarding stress management techniques.

With the information gathered from focus groups, interviews, and surveys, developing an overarching plan to address the reasons for these stressors while ensuring leadership offers support will validate the worker’s mental health concerns. Delegating identified strategies to “boots on the ground” managers allows employees to voice their concerns and meaningfully engage with mitigation tactics, vastly increasing participation and compliance.   

With collaboration between each part of the Aviation workforce, working conditions and employees can improve to foster a more productive team across many different departments. A streamlined process for identifying, documenting, and mitigating work-related stress exacerbated by the recent pandemic will allow for fewer disruptions in daily operations, resulting in a more present and healthier workforce.  

References

Bonnie Kudrick, D. C. (2014). Human Factors Within the Transportation Security Administration: Optimizing Performance Through Human Factors Assessments. In: Schmorrow D.D., Fidopiastis C.M. (eds) Foundations of Augmented Cognition. A.C. 2015. Lecture Notes in Computer Science, vol 9183. Switzerland: Springer, Cham. doi:https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-20816-9_73 

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (June 2020). COVID-19 Stress Among Your Workers? Healthy Work Design and Well-Being Solutions Are Critical. Washington, DC: NIOSH Science Blog. 

(2021). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Washington, DC: CDC. 

NIH. (2020). NIH Workforce Covid-19 Impact Survey. Washington, DC: NIH. 

[email protected] 

Thomas et al. Health and Social Care (December 1, 2021). Disparities in COVID-19–related stressful life events in the United States: Understanding who is most impacted – https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/hsc.13671  

COVID-19 Overview and Infection Prevention and Control Priorities in non-U.S. Healthcare Settings,Updated Dec. 6, 2021 –  

https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/hcp/non-us-settings/overview/index.html 

Transportation & Security Administration – Transportation Security Officer Jobs 

https://jobs.tsa.gov/transport-security-officer  

U.S. Bureau of Labor & Statistics 

https://www.bls.gov/home.htm 

author avatar
Bonnie Kudrick
Bonnie Kudrick is the founder and CEO of HumanLink, LLC. Founded in 2019, Bonnie is a pioneer in integrating and promoting the importance of Human Factors in the federal government. Bonnie specializes in Human Factors Engineering, graduating from Rutgers University with a B.A. in Psychology and the University of Idaho with a Masters of Science in Human Factors Engineering. She also obtained her certificate in Leadership Training through American University. With her vast understanding of how critical the human piece of any successful person/system team, Bonnie successfully established the Human Performance Branch at the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). The primary element that has ensured Bonnie's success with clients in private and public agencies is her ability to lead, listen, and respond to the specific challenges that government agencies, airlines, airports, vendors, and operators face on a daily basis.
Bonnie Kudrick
Bonnie Kudrick
Bonnie Kudrick is the founder and CEO of HumanLink, LLC. Founded in 2019, Bonnie is a pioneer in integrating and promoting the importance of Human Factors in the federal government. Bonnie specializes in Human Factors Engineering, graduating from Rutgers University with a B.A. in Psychology and the University of Idaho with a Masters of Science in Human Factors Engineering. She also obtained her certificate in Leadership Training through American University. With her vast understanding of how critical the human piece of any successful person/system team, Bonnie successfully established the Human Performance Branch at the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). The primary element that has ensured Bonnie's success with clients in private and public agencies is her ability to lead, listen, and respond to the specific challenges that government agencies, airlines, airports, vendors, and operators face on a daily basis.

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