What if We Crash? The Pregnant Employee and the Fear of Flying

I wouldn’t say I loved to fly before I was pregnant with my first child, but it certainly wasn’t a white-knuckle event.  Then, during a business trip when I was six months along, we flew into a storm.  On the meteorologist’s scale, it was not even close to the perfect storm; I’d been through worse turbulence during my business travels. 

However, I was suddenly gripped with a terror I can still recall but not adequately describe.  The fear that something bad might happen to my baby quickly erased any rational thoughts from my head – and left me gripping the arm of the poor man sitting next to me and promising myself that if I ever got off that plane I would never, ever fly again.

Employees Lose Out on More than Frequent Flyer Miles

Of course I did.  But it took years before I could board a plane without feeling a tightening in my gut and a shortening of my breath.  Apparently, I’m not alone.

The fear of flying–or aviaphobia–is more of a problem than you might realize.   Twenty-seven percent of USA Today survey respondents said they were at least “somewhat fearful” of flying.  Nine 9 percent are terrified of it.

A survey by the American Management Association found that 13 percent of employers reported that a fear of flying had adversely impacted their business.  Employees pass up promotions that involve air travel and miss-out-of town meetings, while employers miss out on advancing otherwise stellar employees who could greatly contribute to the bottom line.

What are You So Afraid of?

While the fear of flying may be distinct phobia in itself, it is often a mish mash of different phobias.  For example, it may be an indirect manifestation of one or more other phobias, such as claustrophobia (a fear of enclosed spaces) or acrophobia (a fear of heights). It may have other causes as well – a fear of terrorism, of not being in control, of turbulence, of crashing, etc.

It is a symptom rather than a disease, and different causes may bring it about in different individuals. A fear of flying is a level of anxiety so great that it prevents a person from traveling by air, or causes great distress to a person when he or she is compelled to travel by air. The most extreme manifestations can include panic attacks or vomiting at the mere sight or mention of an aircraft or air travel.

Oh, Those Pregnancy Hormones

Fear of flying often begins during pregnancy.  We might think it is because of the responsibility for another life – and that’s part of it.  However, shortly before delivery, the brain of an expectant mother is flooded with hormones that cause her to become obsessed with safety.

Everything that even remotely looks like a risk has to be controlled or avoided. The hormones go away after delivery, but, unfortunately, the patterns of behavior established by the hormones may continue.

Fear of Flying and the Law

Always consult with your attorney before making any decisions about policies and practices related to mental or physical illnesses.  If a company does not make reasonable accommodations for an employee who is truly traumatized by the thought of flying or affected to the point of having a medical issue-such as panic disorder-or to the point where he cannot perform job functions, serious legal issues and obligations under the Family and Medical Leave Act, Americans with Disabilities Act, and/or National Labor Relations Act may apply.

From a practical (and humane) standpoint, seriously consider an employee’s reasonable request for accommodation, such as telecommuting or participating in meetings via teleconference.  If such an arrangement does not cause significant disruption to the smooth operation of your business, providing such an option, at least on a temporary basis, may assist employees in getting past a period of anxiety, especially give the fact that some of the typical flight anxiety relievers (Xanax, a few vodkas) aren’t recommended for pregnant women.

If the problem continues after childbirth, you can deal with it then; no one has to accommodate an employee by removing an essential function of her job.  But the flexibility you show in the short run  is the kind of strategy that costs little – and earns big bucks in terms of employee loyalty.

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