Occupational stress among pilots | Sunday Observer

Occupational stress among pilots

14 March, 2021

At this very moment, you may be experiencing the agony of stress, albeit it is not a strange feeling but a natural phenomenon. Also, you should not necessarily treat it as a negative phenomenon since it is generally part and parcel of your daily life. However, stress may stand as a hazardous factor as a disparity between an excess of demands and the ability of an individual to meet them. It has been found that this is generated by an anxiety of the psycho-physical equilibrium, psychic and behavioural responses directed at bearing it up. Once this ability of bearing up with the situation fails, stress may bring out dangerous repercussions in terms of social, mental and physical well-being of the individual and the society at large.

Elements such as human relations, work organisation, environmental factors and the demand for jobs may contribute to stress at work. Also, it is reported that the impact which it has on health, performance, efficiency and job satisfaction may vary depending on the phenomena such as; social support, coping resources of individuals and psycho-physical characteristics.

Stress at work

Since the early 1980s, the Western world’s consideration on the rise and causes of stress at work as well as in life in general has been noteworthy. Since 1900, the sequence of change has significantly increased. Fiona Jones and Jim Bright in their book on “Stress: Myth, Theory and Research” state that, science and technology have dramatically influenced this rate of change which started to happen with the introduction of electricity and aircraft in 1900; afterwards in the 1930s, the invention of the television and radar, discovery of nuclear power in the 1950s, the initiation of space travel in the 1960s and 1970s and the internet and the rapid development of information technology in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s.

John Ivancevich, Robert Konopaske and Michael Matteson in their book on “Organizational Behavioral and Management” point out that around the world many people are affected by stress, and unless it is arrested, it may give rise to catastrophic consequences. Over the years there have been different definitions on stress. The ‘pressure from the environment’ is its initial perception and ‘tension within the person’ being its notion later on. ‘Interaction between the situation and the individual’ is considered as the commonly accepted current definition.

And it is the physical and psychological condition which comes into being as the resources available in the individual are not enough to bear up the pressures and the demands of the situation. The achievement of aims and targets of individuals and organisations can be eroded by stress. Dr. Hans Selye defines stress as “any event which may make demands upon the organism, and set in motion a non-specific bodily response which leads to a variety of temporary or permanent physiological or structural changes”.

By simplifying the above definition Richard S.Lazarus says that “Stress is a condition or feeling experienced when a person perceives that demands exceed the personal and social resources the individual is able to mobilize”.

Whatever it is when it comes to job stress, it causes damaging physical and emotional reactions. Such reactions are visible as the worker finds out that his job does not match with his requirements, resources and skills. Poor health conditions and even injuries could be the result of the job stress.

As believed by researchers, work stress is one of the crucial factors which can influence productivity. Ahmadi and his team of researchers of the Behavioral Sciences Research Center in Baqiyatallah University of Medical Sciences, Tehran, Iran in their study on “Stress and job satisfaction among Air Force Military pilots” point out that labour stress could be recognised as one of the main sources of stress in the modern era.

In the USA, Japan and in the UK, researchers say that the financial cost of work stress has substantially risen around the world. As stated in the most recent handbook of work stress, job stress is considered as an international issue. Regardless of whether industrialised or developing countries, considerable concern is given to work stress, for it does not only affect the employee but the organisations and the society at large.


Anybody is vulnerable to become a victim of occupational stress. However, the jobs which are responsible for people are considered as the most stressful. The stressfulness of a job is contributed by the probability of physical danger either to oneself or to others. Also around the globe employees report and complain that they are growingly stressed at their work.

With the initiation of modern powered flight in 1903, the foundation was laid for air transportation which has evolved as one of the major industries of the world. There has been a rapid expansion on the global travel industry, predominantly dominated by air travel. Since the Second World War, the expertise of the psychologists has been used in the selection of pilots.

Following the war and also with the expansion of commercial aviation, psychology has also been included in elements such as designing the layout of the aircraft’s flight deck enhancing a sound communication between the pilots and the air traffic controllers, formulating the most effective and safest ways of escaping from aircraft in an accident and giving advice in making staff rosters from avoiding the crew getting disturbed by fatigue.

Of late considerable attention has been paid on the effects of stress on human performance, but a less awareness is available on psychological stress of the pilots of the commercial airlines. Leo Jeeva and Chandra Mohan wrote “notwithstanding mystique about the aviators’ intrepid coolness, rationality and fortitude; yet pilots are human in the context of mood, emotion, and predisposition,….”.

In aviation stress is a daily reality. It is considered as a threat to aviation safety. There prevails a high risk environment within the aviation environment where there are potential stressors such as decompression sickness, hypoxia, noise and communication, acceleration, temperature and exhaust fumes and motion sickness.

These environmental stressors create a negative effect on the safety of flight which affect both military and civil aviation pilots. As stated in “Aeromedical Training for Flight Personnel” stress leads the aviators to make thinking errors and taking mental shortcuts which could be deadly.

Angela Bloguţ in her research on “Stressing Factors in Aviation” states that generally pilots are compelled to remain in small cockpits for a long time as it is the nature of their job. The usual flight demands such as radio communications, turbulence, navigation, etc., may give the kind of tedious feelings to the pilot in whom stress may be prevalent by being in an aircraft which is rather noisy with high vibrations. Therefore, it is suggested that pilots should have a well-rested time prior to their flight while being concerned with their physical fitness to fight against stress of this nature.


In determining the security of aviation, stress is regarded as one of the main factors. It is also considered that a high level of stress paves the way for the job performance reduction in pilots. Also it stands as a main symptom for pilot error. Cyralene P. Bryce in the book, “Insights into the concept of stress” mentions the most stressful occupations with a rating “air traffic controller (8.0), policeman (8.0), pilot (7.7), doctor (6.8), nurse (6.5), fireman (6.3), paramedic (6.3), and teacher (6.2)”. The above clearly demonstrates that the employees in the aviation and law enforcement have a relatively high rate of stress than the other fields of work.

Since there involves a variety of complex tasks within a ‘Pilot Performa’, it requires a high degree of physical and mental well-being. It is considered that a commercial airline pilot’s job is a highly stressful one. As the flyers of commercial aircraft are responsible for flight safety, they carry a relatively higher job stress than other occupations.

Pilots are subjected to stress of different amounts at every phase of flight; their reaction to stress can explain whether the outcome is a safe flight. As per “Federal Aviation Administration” the reasons of stress of a flyer may vary depending on the circumstances, from unexpected weather conditions to mechanical problems onboard to personal problems not related with flying. Also, the pilots are required to cope with unpredictable weather conditions and schedules and mismanagement among other issues within the industry.

Even under ordinary circumstances stressors such as decreased barometric pressure, accelerative forces, vibration and noise are experienced by pilots and other crew members in the flight environment. Crew members on board that span into several time zones experience fatigue and altered sleep-wake cycles.

If the factors contributing towards the job stress are not properly handled, the prevalence of stress will be consistent. It should be noted that unendurable stress can cause a huge negative impact on the psychological and physiological aspects of the commercial pilots whereas their flying ability reduces.

The mission’s execution and aviation safety are unfavourably affected by stress and fatigue in flight operations. As a result it is important for the air crew members to be familiar with their effects of stress and fatigue in their body. They should be aware how their lifestyles and behaviour can decrease or increase the degree of stress and fatigue experienced by them. As flying is a sensitive job and once errors are reported, the disastrous repercussions it can create both on human security and economy are rather terrifying.

The aviation organisations should be bound by the duty of studying, evaluating and mitigating the pilot’s errors. In that context it is evident that researching on job stress to improve flight safety is an essential factor which can contribute for the enhancement of the competitiveness of airlines.