As transit worker deaths increase from COVID 19 in the Northeast, and the virus spreads throughout all our communities, public transit employees are experiencing overwhelming stress. The frontline workers are understandably gripped with anxiety that they will fall ill or pass the virus to loved ones at home. We know that burnout is the result of a combination of long work hours without a break, a lack of control over one’s environment, a belief that the reward isn’t worth the risk, and a sense that things are unfair. I can’t think of anything that sets essential workers up for intense burnout and trauma more than a pandemic. And yet, it’s becoming increasingly clear the only way out of this is through it. Essential workers will not get a break. The long hours will continue. The risks will be great. The sense of unfairness mounting.
Fear, particularly when it’s sustained over a period of time, reorganizes the brain, cutting off the normal pathways to problem-solving. When the threat response is activated, the autonomic brain will have one of four reactions: fight, flee, freeze, or fold. Certainly, the riding public is behaving erratically due to this toxic stress, making the frontline’s work that much more difficult. Despite reduced service, transit control centers may be registering a higher volume of calls from the frontline due to the chaos. It’s also likely the stress on essential workers causes them to reach out more rather than use their usual coping mechanisms.
Operators, field supervisors, conductors, and maintenance personnel may find it harder to complete tasks that were once manageable. They also may be struggling to come to work, snapping at customers, or simply shutting down and numbing out. These are not signs of weakness, they are human survival techniques deployed during an overwhelming crisis.
Management is also at risk. They directly support the frontline and may feel helpless to respond to their team’s greatest needs, which are adequate PPE, enough police to manage the social breakdown in our communities, and in some cases, extra personnel to share the work. Recognizing the limitations of the support that management can offer is a bitter pill to swallow for everyone.
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Written by Charlotte DiBartolomeo, M.A.C.T., Founder & CEO at Red Kite Project