31ST ANNUAL CONFERENCE, Bournemouth, UK, 23-27 March 1992
WP No. 93
Stress in Air Traffic Control
The Port of Spain Conference required SC4 to continue the examination of stress in ATC and to produce a working paper on this subject for conference 92. This paper is presented as a result of studies from Switzerland, Italy, UK, Denmark and New Zealand.
AIM – The purpose of this paper is to present a review of the most recent studies relevant to stress in ATC and to indicate areas of stress and their possible causes.
DEFINITION – Although there has now been considerable study of this subject, there is still no universally accepted definition of STRESS. However, an overall definition could be given as “The difference perceived by an individual between the demand on that individual and his or her ability to cope”. The job of an ATCO is very demanding, yet it need not necessarily be stressful it is the inability to cope within the prevailing stress.
RESULTS – Each of the studies accepted that there is no single direct measurement of stress, so the observation of symptoms was used as the means of determining stress. Some of these symptoms can be empirically measured: (heart rate, or the amounts of fight/flight hormones for example). Others can be exhibited by individuals’ responses to questionnaires, while direct observation is required for further subjective assessment. It is important that the results of each of these different methods are compared with each other in order to validate their findings. A high correlation was shown especially in both the Danish and UK studies. Occupational stress is generally regarded as the product of the complex interaction of three factors:
- The task itself;
- The occupational environment;
- The personality characteristics of the individual.
The studies from Switzerland, New Zealand and the UK revealed an increase in anxiety in conditions of high traffic loading, the UK study indicating that high communication levels may be causal, rather than actual aircraft numbers used in the Italian Study.
Inadequacies of equipment featured highly in the UK reports. The UK CAA, which is now vigorously addressing this problem, has also advised that stress is often caused by working conditions and the standard and serviceability of associated equipment. Poor working conditions, staff shortages and lack of management support were also cited as stressors by Switzerland, New Zealand, Canada and Denmark.
All ATCO’s have their own personality variables. While the effects of these variables can be exacerbated by stressors leading to deterioration in physical or mental health, both New Zealand and UK studies indicate that ATCO’s have “automated” much of their reactions to increased mental and temporal demands. Consequently, a recommendation of both these reports is that the health of the ATCO workforce should be carefully monitored.
Several studies have now revealed with scientific integrity that considerable levels of occupational stress have been experienced among different groups of Air Traffic Controllers. Occupational stress is the product of complex interaction of the task, the operational environment and the personality characteristics of the individual. Thus is difficult to generalise to all controller groups.
Nevertheless, some of the most common Stressors have been identified as:
- High peak-workload;
- Inadequacies in equipment;
- Lack of trained staff;
- Poor working conditions and lack of management support.
The following will be included in the IFATCA policy on stress in ATC (page 18.104.22.168. of the IFATCA Manual):
Several studies have now revealed with scientific integrity that considerable levels of occupational stress have been experienced among different groups of air traffic controllers.
Occupational stress is the product of complex interaction of the task, the operational environment and the personality characteristics of the individual. Thus it is difficult to generalise to all controller groups.
Last Update: September 20, 2020