Being an aviation professional can be demanding at the best of times, whether it’s dealing with long and unpredictable hours, varying workloads, or complex environments. We recognise that the significant impacts of COVID-19 on the aviation sector have made things even more challenging.
Due to COVID-19 and the measures required to combat the virus, plus the easing of restrictions and the return to business, the effects on our people will be wide-ranging. Some will take it all in their stride and others will feel it much more acutely. But one thing is sure, we’re all human.
Distractions, stress and fatigue brought about by unfamiliar and changing tasks, extended working hours, competing priorities, and concerns for colleagues, friends and family impacted by COVID-19, can increase the risk of errors.
Distraction, stress and fatigue can be described as follows:
Distraction can be considered anything which draws a person’s attention away from the task at hand. We have limited ability to divide attention amongst tasks and generally, have to switch attention back and forth between tasks. For example, talking to ATC while conducting your approach checks. This leaves us vulnerable to losing track of the status of one task while being engaged in another. With the introduction of new and additional tasks around COVID-19 comes the risk of forgetting a safety-critical step.
Stress can be described as either acute or chronic. Acute stress occurs as a reaction to a particular event or series of events, causing responses such as increased heartbeat, sweating, and feelings of uncertainty or fear. These heightened levels of arousal, however, usually decreases rapidly once the situation disappears - this is the well-known flight or fight response. Chronic stress is of particular concern in the current circumstances, and it can also be the most difficult to deal with. Chronic stress is cumulative and often the result of life events, such as the consequences COVID-19 may have had on yourself, family, friends and colleagues.
It’s easy to forget what it’s like to be normal - elevated levels of arousal become the new normal. Over time this can mean the threshold at which we react to demands and pressure at work is lowered, until a point when our body will simply say “I’ve had enough, I can’t take any more.”
Fatigue may be considered the natural physiological reaction to prolonged wakefulness and/or physical/mental stress. The affects of fatigue and people’s resilience against those affects can be quite different from one person to the next. The more fatigued you are, the more you might find difficulty in maintaining concentration, in determining the importance of various signals, or in staying awake. These can all lead you to become more easily distracted. It’s easy to underestimate our own level of fatigue, and equally easy to overestimate our ability to cope with it.
As aviation activity increases with the easing of restrictions, therefore, we must be conscious of our limitations. But we also need to recognise that the people within the aviation system are both important safety barriers - and potential sources of recovery. It’s people who create safety in complex aviation systems. To not only help the aviation sector to recover, but to also ensure it does so safely, we need to ask the question; how can we support each other to do our best?
To combat the effects of distraction, stress and fatigue we need to ensure we look after our health, wellbeing and nutrition as best we can. The only thing that prevents fatigue is sleep. When we’re not fatigued, we can increase our concentration to avoid distractions and we can better handle our stress. We need to work together to ensure adequate breaks are not only provided but also taken. An effective method of dealing with stress is to talk to someone. There are networks such as Peer Assistance Network New Zealand (PAN NZ)(external link), who can provide support. Click here to watch a short video about the ALPA Pilot Peer Support Network(external link).
CASA has provided a number of YouTube videos providing further information on fatigue and stress for pilots and engineers. Click the links below:
The UK CAA has also issued Safety Notice No. SN-2020/0011(external link), which provides some further human factors considerations for organisations during Covid-19 restart activities