Stress is a condition, or feeling, experienced when a person perceives that demands exceed the personal and social resources the individual is able to mobilise.
Air traffic control is a highly demanding job which requires high levels of responsibility with inherent stress due to its nature and the complexity of tasks involved. Just like the flight crews who work in an intensive, stressful environment, air traffic controllers are considered the aviation professionals who face very high levels of stress.
Air traffic control in its nature entails a complex set of tasks demanding levels of knowledge and expertise, as well as the practical application of specific skills pertaining to:
- the cognitive domain (e.g. spatial perception, information processing, movement detection, image and pattern recognition, prioritising, logic reasoning and decision making),
- communicative aspects (verbal filtering including phraseology and language clarity), and
- human relations (teamwork and communication strategies).
The air traffic controller must constantly reorganise and adapt his or her system of processing information (often done under time deficit) by changing operating methods (in particular, cognitive processes, conversation, coordinating with other controllers, assistants, anticipation and solving problems) as they arise and interact with each other. This is carried out by means of the precise and effective application of rules and procedures that need to be quickly selected and applied according to differing circumstances.
It is evident that the job entails, on the whole, high psychological demands while being subjected to a considerable degree of external control.
Sources of Stress in ATM
The most common sources of stress reported by air traffic controllers are connected with both operational aspects and internal organisational structures.
Sources of stress related to the operational aspects (list not intended to be comprehensive):
- Peaks of traffic load
- Time deficit
- Operational procedures (often limited and need to be adapted)
- Limitation and reliability of equipment
- Abnormal/Emergency Situations
Sources of stress related to organisational aspects (not comprehensive):
- Shift schedules (night work in particular)
- Role conflicts
- Unfavourable working conditions
These stress factors, related to both aspects, can affect the job satisfaction and the general health of air traffic controllers. In fact, as the workload increases the air traffic controller tends to employ more procedures which are less time-consuming, together with a progressive reduction to the minimum of flight information and the relaxation of certain self-imposed qualitative criteria. It is evident that the number of decisions to be made becomes a stressful condition when the controller’s decision-making capacity is stretched to the maximum; this can lead, in case of overload, to a very risky situation often addressed as a “loss of the picture”.
In addition, it is frequently reported that, many errors often occur during periods of light and non-complex traffic. This point highlights the need of extra effort required to regulate the psycho-physical reactions, maintaining a high level of arousal and vigilance even in conditions of “light traffic load”.
Stress management is an important skill for the air traffic controllers to hone so that they can adequately cope with stress and prevent it from overwhelming their ability to respond properly at work. As the stress is a mechanism that can sometimes over-stimulate the nervous system, it is difficult to control, but it is not entirely impossible. Specialists say that the first step in coping is to identify stressors and the symptoms that occur after exposure to those stressors. Coping efforts can be focused toward the stressor or the emotions that arise as a result of stress, but the most effective strategy is to deal with both the stressor and its emotional impact. Reducing the negative emotional impact of the stressor removes many of the barriers that obstruct the problem-solving thought processes.
Some examples of stress management techniques are:
- Recognize the potential signs and symptoms of stress
- Be proactive in removing the cause of stress (e.g. assign more priority to the short term conflict first before controlling other aircraft etc.)
- Removing yourself from the stressful situation by knowing one's own capabilities (e.g. calling out for help from colleagues if in a very complex ATC scenario)
- Prioritise actions
- Do not be over focused in finishing the mission at any cost and regardless of the situation
- Be current with all existing procedures at the workplace
The equilibrium of physical and mental factors does not completely destroy the stress factor, but it will make it manageable. Stress can be avoided by managing the following physical and psychological factors:
- Maintain good physical fitness
- Have regular meals
- Have sufficient sleep
- Sound time management
- Control the physical environment
- Sound preparation with regard to knowledge, skills and procedures
- Building confidence in own training and ability
- Leading balanced social and family life (so that financial and domestic worries are not a problem)
- Share and discuss problems so as not to bottle them up
- Solve problems as soon as possible to prevent “the domino” effect
Other recommendations involve development or maintenance of a healthy lifestyle, with adequate rest and exercise, a healthy diet, limited consumption of alcoholic drinks and tobacco products.