Flight-related stress

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It is virtually a natural part of the airline pilot’s self-image to be able to adequately handle stress. His work conditions and tasks exhibit the classic attributes of extreme stress. A high degree of responsibility, multiple burdens, time constraints, a continuously and intensively changing environment are intimately tied to this profession, just to name a few. When stress continues over an extended period of time, it depresses performance capabilities and threatens health. According to physicians, over half of the illnesses we experience may be triggered by too much stress. Extreme stress can lead to panic and possibly even to a loss of control over the motor functions. When individual stress limits have been exceeded, decisions canno longer be made (Koechlin 2011). Just as with all people, pilots, too, bring stress from their private lives into the workplace, which ultimately adds to their job stress. For this reason, the following discussion is not limited to merely the occupational issues related to handling stress.

Flight-related stress plays a central role in Crew Resource Management (CRM). Among other things, decision making, information processing, human error and communication in the aircraft are directly influenced by too much, but also by too little stress.

Signs of Stress

The following discussion differentiates between two types of stress: chronic stress and acute stress. Chronic stress builds over time due to persistent stressors, oftentimes external to the profession. For the most part, acute stress results from occupationally-related stress peaks that can extend up to the limits of one’s productive capabilities. Both types of stress are cumulative, adding to the total stress burden. This means that.

those persons already encumbered with chronic stress from home may not be able to handle that much more acute, sporadic stress before exceeding their personal stress limits. When exposed to stress, the body sends out signals that are distinctly different and should be recognizable to anyone. The symptoms of chronic stress are subtler and more difficult to recognize than those of acute stress.

Indications of Chronic Stress

Under a great deal of stress and in extreme situations, a person may feel trapped, desperate, helpless and miserable, yet without attributing this to the stress itself.

• He speaks more rapidly.

• He interrupts others in the middle of a conversation.

• He eats conspicuously fast.

• He takes on more commitments than he can successfully handle.

• He hates to squander time.

• He frequently drives too fast on the road.

• He attempts to accomplish several things simultaneously.

• He quickly becomes impatient when confronted with slower colleagues.

• He spends too little time resting or together with friends.

• He becomes increasingly more aggressive in response to criticism.

• He doesn’t accept criticism.

• He tends towards arrogance.

• His problems with colleagues, supervisors or in the family become more frequent.

• He increasingly draws back from participating in social activities.

• He drinks, smokes or eats in conspicuously large amounts.

• He no longer achieves the same quality of work.

• He enters into high risk situations conspicuously often.

• He is potentially inclined towards uncontrolled fits of rage.

• He treats other persons unjustly.

• Over the long-term:

• His personality changes and he is no longer the same person he once was.

• He is increasingly inclined towards illness.

• His appearance becomes grey and pale.

Acute Stress

Oftentimes, several things must be taken care of simultaneously when commanding an aircraft. Demands sometimes may appear to be too great for the time available, which can lead to overstressing. A state of tension and irritation follows, along with a limited power of judgement.

Headaches and digestive disorders can arise.

Time constraints and overloads manifest themselves through:

• A strained voice—rapid, high-pitched, hasty

• A tensed seating posture, oftentimes not in the centre of the seat

• Too rapid breathing rate or the holding of breath

• Perspiration

• Heavy and/or too rapid heartbeat

• Dry mouth

• Reddened skin colour

• So-called ‘‘white knuckles’’

• The clenching or gritting of teeth

• Too rapid or no eye movement

• Tunnel vision

• Difficulty gathering thoughts

• Conversations will be merely technical in nature, if at all.

• No one jests or makes a joke.

• Attention is consistently drawn to incidental matters.

• Deviations from Standard Operating Procedures are undertaken.

• Decisions are no longer made.

When these symptoms appear, an increased risk for the flight, itself, exists. It is

then increasingly likely that the crew will become entangled in the so-called poor

Judgement chain.

Hans-Joachim Ebermann

Joachim Scheiderer


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