An airline chief is facing a backlash after calling on employees to work through fatigue so the business can avoid 'reputational and financial' damage.
In a video message to staff, Wizz Air chief executive Jozsef Varadi encouraged staff to go "the extra mile" when tired, so that the firm could avoid cancelling flights. Chaotic scenes have unfolded at airports in recent weeks as staff shortages resulted in hours-long queues of travellers and flights being delayed and/or cancelled en masse.
In a bid to minimise the impact for Wizz Air, Varadi told workers: "Now that everyone is getting back into work, I understand that fatigue is a potential outcome of the issues but once we are starting stabilising the rosters, we also need to take down the fatigue rate.
"I mean, we cannot run this business when every fifth person of a base reports sickness because the person is fatigued. We are all fatigued but sometimes it is required to take the extra mile."
He added: "The damage is huge when we are cancelling the flights, it's huge. It is reputational damage of the brand and it is the other financial damage, transactional damage because we have to pay compensation for that."
Deficient safety culture alert!@WizzAir CEO encourages pilots to fly fatigued! It’s like handing the car keys to a drunk driver. @EASA step in! You are WIZZ’ oversight authority… pic.twitter.com/qdJdBVwH90— European Pilots (@eu_cockpit) June 8, 2022
UK’s burnout problem is far from over
Understandably, Varadi’s comments have sparked a backlash from airline unions, specifically regarding how pilots and flight attendants working past exhaustion could pose a major risk to passengers. But his comments also highlight wider issues about burnout, and attitudes towards it in the workplace.
Burnout is defined by mental health campaigning group Mental Health UK as a state of emotional and physical exhaustion that “can occur when you experience long-term stress in your job, or when you have worked in a physically or emotionally draining role for a long time.”
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Over the course of the pandemic, millions of workers around the world stepped up, going above and beyond to keep their companies afloat and keep themselves in a job. This led to widespread instances of high stress, anxiety and burnout among workers. In fact, Ceridian’s 2022 Pulse of Talent Report found that four out of every five UK workers had suffered burnout at some point over the course of the pandemic.
However, burnout and high stress did not go away with the end of the UK’s COVID-19 restrictions. The lockdowns may be long over but the effects they had on workers can still be felt to this day. And Mental Health UK warns that ignoring the signs of burnout can cause further harm to employee’s physical and mental health.
Furthermore, data from the Wellbeing Thesis, along with innumerable other work studies, found that in order to truly get the best work out of your team, it's best to allow them to take more time to relax, clear their heads and rest, as this results in greater productivity, not less.
“Relaxing and social breaks have been found to be particularly beneficial. A relaxing break can help to facilitate recovery, by returning your mental and psychical functional systems to their baseline. Additionally, a relaxing break can help to reset your mood, thereby promoting positive wellbeing and reducing stress,” the study concluded.
Of course, the opposite is also true. A lack of breaks and time away from work reduces cognitive function, making the work produced poorer in quality, and fundamentally decreasing the wellbeing of staff.
Presenteeism remains a key issue
Increased presenteeism – the practice of continuing to work when unwell - is associated with increases in reported common mental health conditions as well as stress-related absence, which are among the top causes of long-term sickness absence, according to the CIPD.
Rachel Suff, Senior Policy Adviser, Employment Relations at the CIPD, comments: “It’s crucial for organisations to address any issues that could be creating a culture where staff feel they are expected to work when ill or feel it’s the only way they can stay on top of their workload. Employers need to ensure that line managers are aware of the risks of presenteeism and being ‘always on’2.
She concludes: “Managers play an important role in supporting individuals with their health and wellbeing, and they should assess individual and team workloads to make sure they are reasonable, set clear expectations about taking breaks, and act as good role models for healthy working practices, such as taking time off when sick.”