Dealing with Psychological Stress

Air Line Pilot, October 2001, p. 28
By F/O David R. Chong (Mesa)

This has been a rowdy year for the airline industry. Labor tensions, corporate mergers (successful or otherwise), expanding small jet capacities, ATC modernization issues, and airport congestion debates made for a lively spring and summer. And the fun has just begun.

Yes, while the entire aviation industry grapples with a horde of complex challenges, the ever-increasing numbers of passengers boarding our airplanes are expecting—and demanding—better performance, value, and service from us than ever before, regardless of the circumstances. This is where it all gets interesting.

In 1998, the Federal Aviation Administration forecast U.S. airline enplanements to reach 845.6 million people by 2005, a 46 percent increase over the number in 1995. On top of that, a 16 percent increase was forecast for U.S. general aviation, with 29.9 million flight hours projected for the same year.

For pilots already facing extensive flight delays, long duty schedules, and nonstop corporate upheaval, our individual responses to the challenges ahead may very well make or break not only our careers, but also our entire personal lives.

Flight crews are usually not surprised to hear that human psychological stress is a major detriment to aviation safety. Excessive levels of employee stress have been demonstrated to reduce job performance, and the all-too-familiar label of "pilot error" resonates deeply within pilots and passengers alike.

With this in mind, and anticipating more stressful days ahead, the research study that I chose for my master’s thesis at Arizona State University sought to clarify the presence of chronic stressors in airline pilots and to identify any effective stress-coping mechanisms that today’s aviators use.

The study

In the study, 115 pilots from various-sized air carriers replied to a random survey that investigated 54 work-related potential stressors (see Figure 1), in addition to the pilots’ methods for coping with stress. (Note: This study investigates chronic psychological stress. Therefore, each survey item combines both a measure of stressor intensity and frequency, so that a moderate stressor occurring frequently may yield a higher chronic stress score than a severe stressor occurring rarely.)

The survey also measured the pilots’ overall patterns of physical activity, to determine if physically active pilots felt less stress than their sedentary counterparts. This was included because other studies have shown physical activity to be notably effective in reducing depression and anxiety.

The results

The first distinct result of the research was that no significant differences in overall stress scores were reported between airline pilots of different-sized carriers. So, although we had theorized that differences in pay scales, route structures, equipment types, and work schedules might cause one group of pilots to report more stress than the others, this did not turn out to be the case. Most respondents displayed low to moderate chronic stress levels (see Figure 2).

The second major finding of the research was that, of the 26 prominent stressors reported, very few came from aviation-specific factors affecting only pilots.

Rather, respondents cited more stress from company-related matters, such as management style, time allowed to eat on duty, and union contract negotiations, than they did from inflight issues such as low instrument approaches, terrorism, and high ambient noise levels.

Dealing with the stress

When asked to identify their stress-coping strategies, respondents cited an abundance of different methods, specifically listing 67 different activities and techniques for reducing psychological stress (see Figure 3). Physical activity turned out to be, by far, the most commonly reported technique for alleviating stress, but the fact that a direct relationship did not exist between physical activity levels and stress scores suggests that pilots who chose to relax with non-exercise methods enjoyed just as much stress relief as their more active colleagues.

Also, while only 6 percent of respondents were classified as sedentary (see Figure 4), this doesn’t mean that most pilots are athletes. In fact, respondents’ activity ranges closely paralleled those of the overall American population, suggesting that pilots weren’t any more or less inclined to exercise than anyone else.

The effect

Being able to pin down the sources of your psychological stress is tremendously beneficial, because doing so can help you target the stressors that are specifically affecting your life. Read through the list of stressors in this survey (see Figure 1) and think about which ones are having the greatest effect on you. Then, if you’re having trouble reducing your work-related aggravation, take a look at the stress-busting strategies that your peers are using (see Figure 3). You just might find in the list something that you hadn’t thought of before that would be perfect for relieving your stress.

Everyone seems to have at least one thing that really works for relaxation, and many people have several different stress-coping strategies. For you, whether that is listening to music, spending time with your family, rock climbing, working on a separate business, singing in your church choir, or going to the gym, just find what you like and stick with it.

And for those of you who already happen to be physically active, congratulations! You’re reducing your risks of heart disease, adult-onset diabetes, high blood pressure, colon cancer, and even premature death, while promoting an improved body composition (the ratio of your fat cells to your lean body mass), and healthier bones, muscles, and joints. And don’t forget that many of your more common "physical" activities, including washing your car, going dancing, and even doing chores around the house, can also count toward your health. So, just watch out for those wretched airport snack machines and have fun enjoying your long, happy airline career.

F/O David R. Chong (Mesa) conducted this research in the Department of Exercise Science and Physical Education of Arizona State University, where a hard-bound copy of his entire thesis is available in the University’s main campus library.

Figure 1--Ranked Classification of Chronic Stressors

High Chronic Stress
1. Airline’s management style
2. Employee benefit package

Moderate Chronic Stress
3. Duration of trip assignments
4. Union contract negations
5. Pay scale for position
6. Time allowed to eat while on duty
7. Airline’s dispatch program
8. Layover lodging facilities
9. Negative effects of job on family life
10. Locations of layovers
11–12. (tie) Airline’s public image; Pilot’s personal financial status
13. Rest periods on layovers
14–15. (tie) Possible FAR violations; Overall opinion of employer
16. Negative effects of job on other personal relationships
17. Flight proficiency checkrides
18. Airline’s maintenance program
19. Age 60 mandatory retirement
20. Airline’s on-time pressures
21. Airline’s financial status
22–23. (tie) Airline’s hiring policies; Rest periods at home between trips

Borderline Moderate Chronic Stress
24. Red-eye/CDO flights
25. Operations at busy airports
26. Severe weather operations

Low Chronic Stress
27. Mental stress level at work
28. Career advancement options
29. Difficulty of work commute
30. Airline’s route structure
31. Stress-related job errors
32. The possibility of being in an incident or accident
33. Crew base location
34. Chance of being in an inflight emergency
35. Stability of home life
36. Fully automated aircraft
37. High ambient noise levels
38. Supportive family and friends
39. Personal inflight fatigue
40. ATC restrictions
41. The possibility of inflight terrorism
42–43. (tie) Overall career satisfaction; Satisfaction with current aircraft
44. 24-hour reserve
45. Transitioning to new aircraft
46. FAA inspector on board
47. Argumentative/combative flightcrew member
48. Being continuously seated
49. High cockpit vibration levels
50. Instrument approaches to minimums
51. Unprofessional crewmember
52. Medical evaluations
53. Extended boredom
54. A crewmember with substance abuse problems 

Figure 2--Stress Scores

  Number of Value Respondents Percentage of
Very low 0–72 points 0 0%
Low 73–158 points 60 52.2%
Moderate 159–244 points 53 46.1%
High 245–348 points 2 1.7%
Very high 349–432 points 0 0%


Figure 3--Reported Stress Alleviation Techniques

Rank Activities, Hobbies, and Techniques No. Respondents
per Activity
1 Weight training 23
2 Nonspecified sport or exercise program 22
3-4 Golf; Reading 21 each
5-6 Running; Sailing/boating 16 each
7 Spending time with family/children/spouse 15
8-9 Bicycling; Fishing 13 each
10-11 Skiing (water/snow); Walking 11 each
12 Computer activities 10
13-17 Hiking; Listening to music; Farm/yard/garden activities; Church activities/praying/faith in God; House/home/furniture improvements 9 each
18-19 Hunting/shooting; Auto/aircraft maintenance/restoration 8 each
20-21 Travel; Socializing 7 each
22-23 Swimming; Watching movies 6 each
24-28 Having sex; Sleeping/napping; Woodworking; Model building/model rocketry; Backpacking/camping 5 each
29 Playing a musical instrument 4
30-37 Casual rest/relaxation; Eating a healthy, balanced diet; Watching TV; Playing with pets; Inline skating; Tennis; Scuba diving; Riding and/or training horses 3 each
38-49 Surfing; Other job; Massage; Motorcycling; Racquetball; Softball; Non-airline flying; Yoga; Road racing; Stretching; Off-roading; Industry or community service 2 each
50-68 Meditation; Dancing; Hockey; Studying foreign language; Crafts; Singing; Driving; Water polo; Martial arts; Flag football; Going to beach; Taking vitamins/herbs; Watching sports; History; Deep breathing; Chess; Politics; Cooking; White noise 1 each


Figure 4--Physical Activity Scores

  Number of Value Respondents Percentage of
Completely inactive 0 points 7 6.1%
Somewhat inactive 1–4 points 23 20%
Somewhat active 5–8 points 21 18.3%
Moderately active 9–15 points 47 40.1%
Highly active 16–21 points 10 8.7%
Very highly active 22–35 points 7 6.7%