Stress is an inescapable part of life for all of us. Stress can be defined as any force, that when applied to a system, causes some significant modification of its form where forces can be physical, psychological or due to social pressures. From a human viewpoint, stress results from the imposition of any demand or set of demands which require us to react, adapt or behave in a particular manner in order to cope with or satisfy them. Up to a point, such demands are stimulating and useful, but if the demands are beyond our personal capacity to deal with them, the resulting stress is a problem.

Causes and Symptoms

Stress is usually something experienced due to the presence of some form of stressor, which might be a one-off stimulus (such as a challenging problem or a punch on the nose), or an ongoing factor (such as an extremely hot hangar or an acrimonious divorce). From these, we get acute stress (typically intense but of short duration) and chronic stress (frequent recurrence or of long duration) respectively.

Different stressors affect different people to varying extents. Stressors may be:

  • Physical – such as heat, cold, noise, vibration, presence of something damaging to health (e.g. carbon monoxide), the onset of fatigue;
  • Psychological – such as emotional upset (e.g. due to bereavements, domestic problems, etc.), worries about real or imagined problems (e.g. due to financial problems, ill health, etc.);
  • Reactive – such as events occurring in everyday life (e.g. working under time pressure, encountering unexpected situations, etc.).

The possible signs of stress can include:

  • Physiological symptoms – such as sweating, dryness of the mouth, etc.
  • Health effects – such as nausea, headaches, sleep problems, diarrhoea, ulcers, etc.
  • Behavioural symptoms – such as restlessness, shaking, nervous laughter, taking longer over tasks, changes to appetite, excessive drinking, etc.
  • Cognitive effects – such as poor concentration, indecision, forgetfulness, etc.
  • Subjective effects – such as anxiety, irritability, depression, moodiness, aggression, etc.

It should be noted that individuals respond to stressful situations in very different ways. Generally speaking though, people tend to regard situations with negative consequences as being more stressful than when the outcome of the stress will be positive (e.g. the difference between being made redundant from work and being present at the birth of a son or daughter).

Domestic Stress

Pre-occupation with a source of domestic stress can play on one’s mind during the working day, distracting from the working task. Inability to concentrate fully may impact on task performance and ability to pay due attention to safety. Domestic stress typically result from major life changes at home, such as marriage, birth of a child, a son or daughter leaving home, bereavement of a close family member or friend, marital problems, or divorce.

Work Related Stress

Aviation personnel can experience stress due to the task or job they are undertaking at that moment, or due to the general organisational environment. Stress can be felt when carrying out certain tasks that are particularly challenging or difficult. This stress can be increased by lack of SOPs in this situation, or time pressures. The latter type of stress can be reduced by careful workload management, good training, etc.

Within the organisation, the social and managerial aspects of work can be stressful. Pilots whose jobs are under threat due to a company reorganisation, for instance, are likely to have an increased level of background stress which, when combined with task stresses or domestic stresses, may not be conducive to safe operations.

Stress Management

Once we become aware of stress, we generally respond to it by using one of two strategies: defence or coping. Defence strategies involve alleviation of the symptoms (taking medication, alcohol, etc.) or reducing the anxiety (e.g. denying to yourself that there is a problem (denial), or blaming someone else).

Coping strategies involve dealing with the source of the stress rather than just the symptoms (e.g. delegating workload, prioritising tasks, sorting out the problem, etc.).

Coping is the process whereby the individual either adjusts to the perceived demands of the situation or changes the situation itself. Unfortunately, it is not always possible to deal with the problem if this is outside the control of the individual (such as during an emergency), but there are well-published techniques for helping individuals to cope with stress. Good stress management techniques include:

Relaxation techniques

  • Careful regulation of sleep and diet;
  • A regime of regular physical exercise;
  • Counselling – ranging from talking to a supportive friend or colleague to seeking professional advice.

There is no magic formula to cure stress and anxiety, merely common sense and practical advice.

Managing Stress In Flight Operations

  • Prepare flights thoroughly – Anticipate threats and unlikely situations
  • Plan and manage workload to avoid time pressure
  • When time pressured, buy some time
  • Use Crew Resource Management ? team support strategies

As soon as your flight is over, eliminate the secondary effect of stress appropriate to your personality, for example, by physical or artistic activities.

Most forms of exercise are good ways of restoring equilibrium.

Time Pressure and Deadlines

There is probably no industry in the commercial environment that does not impose some form of deadline and consequently time pressure on its employees. Aircraft flight operations are no exception.

It was highlighted in the previous section that one of the potential stressors in aviation is time pressure. This might be actual pressure where clearly specified deadlines are imposed by an external source (e.g. ops management ) and passed on to flight crew, or perceived pressure, where pilots feel that there are time pressures, even when no definitive deadlines have been set in stone. In addition, time pressure may be self-imposed, where flight crew have personal reasons for timely action (e.g. departing on the last sector after a long day before duty time limits expire and the crew can’t get home). This is often referred to as “get-home-itis”.

The Effects of Time Pressure and Deadlines

As with stress, it is generally thought that some time pressure is stimulating and may actually improve task performance. However, it is almost certainly true that excessive time pressure (actual or perceived, external or self-imposed), is likely to mean that due care and attention when carrying out tasks diminishes and more errors will be made. Ultimately, these errors can lead to aircraft incidents and accidents.