Ongoing Impact of Covid on DHS Screeners and Security
See the article in Security Magazine here.
Mental and physical health have been given greater priority in many workplaces over the recent past, where they were previously ignored. With this rise in mental and physical employee health awareness, it is easy to overlook the fact that employees’ workloads have grown exponentially, especially with the Covid pandemic. If employees are expected to handle a more rigorous workload, the proper mental and physical health measures must be enacted within the workplace. The Covid pandemic has amplified the needs for employers to take care of their employees, not only so that operations are not disturbed, but also to keep employees safe and healthy and thereby keeping them committed to both their own goals and the organization’s goals. This is particularly important for all types of screeners working for the Department of Homeland Security, such as TSOs in the TSA and cargo companies. Their work requires them to be in-person and be in constant contact with large groups of people, so they have been required to experience the most stressful aspects of the shift in workplace protocols due to the pandemic.
Managing the cognitive workload in screeners’ responsibilities is a high priority for the TSA, as the sensory and perceptual load impact the screeners’ decision-making, vigilance, and attention, all of which are of the utmost importance when working within an airport checkpoint environment. Employers like TSA, DHL and other cargo carriers need to develop techniques to optimize a host of mental and physical attributes used in their particular workplace, including attention allocation, logical reasoning, pattern recognition and classification, visual search and visual memory strategies, and problem solving. These should include physiological, behavioral, cognitive, and environmental assessments.
Aside from the common concerns that have arisen due to Covid and its evolving variants, there are additional consistent stressors that affect the screener workforce. While the health risks from contracting Covid have lessened due to many factors, including the introduction of the vaccine, because of the high volume of traffic that moves through airport checkpoints, exposure to infection is still a concern due to transmission between themselves and passengers. The Infection Prevention and Control (IPC) measures that were relied upon at the height of the pandemic comprised of regulations for using Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), environmental adjustments, social distancing, adding physical barriers, training on IPC measures, signage, quarantining, testing, environmental cleaning, guidelines and recommendations from the federal government and the CDC. Masks are still being used for those that work in close contact with large volumes of people, and those additional measures have become part of the regular routine. (https://cdc.gov)
This high-risk environment also creates great concern for the health and wellbeing of the screeners’ families outside of the workplace. All Security Screeners are at a greater risk of infection and/or contaminating others because they are often face-to-face and in close proximity to passengers. Although the required PPE may be worn, there is still risk in these job tasks. This is a constant, everyday concern for screeners who return home to their families and worry that they may carry Covid from the ongoing exposure they experience throughout their shift. Understanding that these job tasks must be conducted to ensure aviation security, it is the employer’s responsibility to mitigate these stressors for the screeners.
Covid also caused a reduction in staff from outbreak and quarantine requirements, which in turn vastly increased the workload for those screeners who addressed this shortfall. They were required to work harder to screen passengers both swiftly and effectively, so that passengers were on time for their flights while also upholding the standards of security set forth by the TSA. Staff reductions are still an issue today, a ripple effect from the many infection surges and societal changes brought on by the pandemic. While it is critical that each individual employee monitor and recognize symptoms of stress, they can often be easily overlooked with their attention focused on the mission.. Because the job that screeners perform is integral to our National Security, the TSA benefits when they prioritize the health and wellness of their employees and address these unexpected issues that arise.
The purpose of this white paper is to investigate, document, and recommend mitigation strategies to assuage some of the psychological impacts that the screeners are experiencing.
Ongoing Impacts of Covid are Being Manifested in TSA and other Screeners’ Overall Health
Research continues to assess efficacy of IPC, and more importantly how the overall workforce is impacted by Covid. Most studies assessed the effectiveness of IPC measures in hospital and nursing home settings, demonstrating the extent to which healthcare facilities and staff have been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, few if any studies assessed IPC measures in manufacturing, industrial, essential retail, and public service settings, which have continued to provide essential goods and services to the public throughout the global pandemic.
Workers in these fields can suffer increased feelings of uncertainty, anxiety, irritation, anger, and denial. It is not uncommon to lack motivation, have trouble sleeping or concentrating, and to feel tired, overwhelmed, burned out, sad, and even depressed (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, June 2020).
Evidence in a study by the NIH suggests the pandemic may have negative effects on the productivity of working women due to unanticipated child and elder care challenges. Support staff for daycare and in-home elder care have also been impacted, and these responsibilities are falling disproportionately on women. A 2021 study was conducted (1) to characterize stressful life events experienced as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic in five domains (i.e., work/finances, home life, social activity, health, and healthcare) and (2) to examine the extent to which sociodemographic factors (i.e., gender, race/ethnic minority status, SES, and wealth) account for disparities in these outcomes. Women experienced a higher number of COVID-19–related stressful life events across areas of work/finances, home life, social activity, and access to healthcare. In sum, this pattern of results shows that female gender was a consistent, independent predictor of a higher number of stressful life events in four of the five domains. (Thomas et al., 2021). Female screeners are imperative to the operation as they are needed for secondary search protocols of female passengers.
There were also negative effects on workers with a lower socioeconomic status. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor & Statistics, the national average salary in 2020 was $56,310 (https://bls.gov), while the TSA reports Transportation Security Officers average an annual salary of $28,293 to $42,439. (https://jobs.tsa.gov). 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 increased symptoms of depression and anxiety, with such changes possibly driven or intensified by income insecurity. (Thomas et al., 2021).
Identifying and Mitigating the Concern for DHS Screeners
Figure 1: Understanding Risk
To fully understand the specific and most prominent stressors for screeners, it is imperative to first determine if they understand the signs of stress. The TSA must educate screeners on being able to identify symptoms of prolonged stress and how these may make their job 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
Once these behaviors have been identified and documented, it is crucial to normalize and validate those 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 must then be taught to understand the precursors of stress to develop personal intervention strategies. Employers of security screeners should develop communications via video in coordiantion with their training department as well as their top leaders to present to the entire workforce, incrementally over time. They should also provide education on the consequences of prolonged periods of stress. Finding the “right” communication strategy, that instills a sense of understanding, compassion and showing that the screeenrs are appreciated and valued, are investments in helping Security Screeners get through these uncertain times.
Investment is Profound as TSA Screeners are Integral in Maintaining National Security
Investment in resources in support of the health and well-being of Seucirty screeners is vital to national security. This must be acknowledged by these departments, and employees need to know that their concerns regarding both pandemic-related and general stress are taken into serious consideration by their managers and department heads. They need to know and be recognized for how valuable they are. The TSA can provide education on the consequences of prolonged stress and provide ways for employees to acknowledge when they are experiencing this. They need to be able to answer the question, “How do I know I’m experiencing these symptoms?”
Productivity is correlated with an increased sense of meaning, and also relating to the mission. The TSA should develop and disseminate effective communications with key messages emphasizing the importance of the Screeners to the TSA Mission. Additional measures include interactive sessions, with employee participation to encourage collaboration, which can help address why they are experiencing stress or lack of motivation. These feelings are valid, and the TSA cares about them and wants to identify why they feel negatively so they can work to make their feelings more positive. Modules for recognizing and 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.
Establishing a Framework for Mitigation
Due to the number of screeners employed by the TSA, it is impossible for the head of the organizations to address every employee issue. The same goes for the Federal Services Desk, where 1 person is unable to provide solutions to each individual employee. However, by delegating this responsibility to the various managers, the opportunity for employees to voice their concerns and meaningfully engage with mitigation tactics greatly increases. The TSA can create a script for managers to follow to streamline this process as well as anticipate common responses.
With the collaboration of each moving part of the DHS workforce, working conditions and employee considerations can improve to foster a more productive team across many different departments. A streamlined process for identifying, documenting, and mitigating work-related stress that has been exacerbated by the global pandemic will allow for less disruptions in daily operations as well as a more present and healthy workforce.
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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. (2020) NIH Workforce Covid-19 Impact Survey. Washington, DC: CDC. NIH. (2020). Washington, DC: NIH.
Thomas et al. (2021, December 1). Disparities in COVID-19–related stressful life events in the United States: Understanding who is most impacted. Wiley Online Library. https://doi.org/10.1111/hsc.13671