Keeping the Gripes Where They Belong: Backstage

Discernment: noun; the quality of being able to grasp and comprehend what is obscure.

 – Merriam-Webster’s Third International Dictionary

On a recent plane trip, I started thinking about why it is that so many people these days seem to lack discernment. Sitting next to me on the flight was an off-duty flight attendant, a “deadhead” as they’re called in the airline industry. She was travelling from a recent assignment to her home base. Our conversation started out with the usual pleasantries, and then we started talking about our jobs. I gave her a quick overview of Press Ganey and my role as a consultant. And then it was her turn …

Apparently, Attila the Hun is alive and well and is the CEO of a major U.S. airline. His business model is to not only employ slave labor, but to actively ensure the most dysfunctional workers are assigned the most desired jobs. l also learned that the management of this airline is purposely trying to run the business into the ground (a statement that tends to take on a whole different meaning when you’re sitting 30,000 feet in the air). And by the way, my seatmate has no plans of leaving her job. Oh joy.

My first reaction upon hearing the horrific working conditions she was forced to endure was to say, "Wow, I can’t believe they would actually do that ... that’s unbelievable!” I didn’t buy everything she was saying, but was trying to be respectful.

Then I started putting a few things together. This wasn’t the first time I’ve heard a flight attendant complain about his or her job. I’ve sat near the front or back on enough planes to have overheard the conversations of many flight attendants. My seatmate’s complaints apparently are shared by others. (Perhaps one reason for her discontent was that the airline industry does refer to off-duty airline attendants as “deadheads.” A deadhead to me is a zombie that you kill off in one of my teenager’s video games, not a term a company applies to its employees.)

Anyway, the gripes were things as a customer that I didn’t care or want to know. I bought into the dream of flying the friendly skies, and I want that image preserved. After all, there is a hefty price to pay to fly. 

Unfortunately, the lack of discernment by my seatmate and other airline employees in failing to keep  “backstage” issues from being played out in front of audiences has worked to lower my view of the airline industry. I don't mean to paint all flight attendants with the same broad brush; I know there are many who would be horrified to hear of my experiences and offended by the actions of their peers. The reality, though, is that I now question how friendly those skies really are.

I’m sure my airline experience happens in the health care industry. Hospital marketers frequently highlight the compassionate care provided by care workers or promote the clinical teams involved in the delivery of care. Yet all that can be ripped apart by the careless conversations of co-workers in front of patients and their families.

How unsettling it must be for patients and families to start questioning the friendliness of the “hospital skies” during a time in their lives when things can be very unsettling.

Knowing what are “backstage” issues and concerns, and keeping those issues away from patients and their families when they are present is part of being a caregiver. This is what I mean by lack of discernment.