AINsight: The ‘Right Stuff’ To Handle Stress

 - June 25, 2021, 8:57 AM

Stress is part of everyday life—it’s unavoidable. In aviation, high levels of stress are prevalent in many occupations; topping the list of most stressful jobs are pilots, air traffic controllers, and aircraft technicians. The effects of stress are cumulative and when it's not managed properly, judgment can become clouded and errors made.

A commonly accepted definition of stress is Lazarus’s theory of stress: “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.” Stress is natural, it occurs because of bodily mechanisms—a series of physiological and biochemical changes.

Stress can be good (eustress) or bad (distress). Small amounts of stress can provide benefits such as increased alertness and an improved ability to concentrate. Too much stress accumulated over time has been associated with health problems. Studies point to a strong correlation between high levels of stress and an increase in errors, poor decision making and judgment, loss of situational awareness, and confusion.

Professional pilots routinely encounter significant stressors—those events that cause stress—both inside and outside of the flight deck. Stressors can be obvious or subtle but are always cumulative.

On the flight deck, obvious stressors may include weather, mechanical malfunctions, and/or ATC delays. Other stressors are more subtle such as aircraft noise, vibrations, and/or constant radio chatter.

Outside of the cockpit, “career jeopardy” events such as annual training and biannual flight physicals are stressful. Managing a work/life balance, inconsistent schedules, and time zone changes or circadian shifts are fatiguing and can lead to additional stress.

Captains cause stress. One study found that a captain’s personality type can influence the amount of stress on the flight deck.

During this study, flight crews performed normal line and emergency operations in a Boeing 737 flight simulator. Afterward, the crews were tested for perceived stress. The findings showed a direct correlation between stress and errors—crews with the greatest amount of stress committed the most errors when compared to those crews with lower stress.

Of interest, crews with the fewest errors (and less stress) were led by captains who, according to the report, had the “right stuff.” Those captains were described as “active, warm, confident, competitive, and preferring excellence and challenges.”

Lower performing crews—more errors and stress—were led by captains either with the “wrong stuff” or, worse, “no stuff.” Wrong stuff captains were described as “arrogant, authoritarian, emotionally invulnerable, impatient, irritable, and having limited interpersonal warmth or sensitivity.” The “no stuff” captains were “unassertive, self-subordinating, and had low self-confidence, average interpersonal skills, and a low desire for challenging tasks and excellence.”

Stress can be either acute or chronic. Acute stress typically is easier to manage; it's situational or event-driven. Chronic stress is insidious and more difficult to manage.

Individuals react to stress differently; much of this is based on personality types or past events—triggers associated with an unpleasant experience. Coping with stress requires an individual to “take control.”

Preparation, anticipation, planning, communications, CRM, and time management are some of the most effective ways to handle stress. Long-term stress is best dealt with ensuring a physical well-being through sleep, diet, and exercise. Likewise, continuous professional training provides the currency and competence in SOPs and emergency procedures. Most importantly, when overwhelmed with tasks it is okay to say “no” or ask for help.   

Pilot, safety expert, consultant, and aviation journalist - Kipp Lau writes about flight safety and airmanship for AIN. He can be reached at