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Are Stress and Fatigue a Special Case?

Coping is one of the candidate competencies identified earlier. In Chapter 4 we explored stress and fatigue in some detail and it is clear that an organisation design intervention along the lines discussed in the previous section could moderate the problem. I have also suggested that ab initio training will be radically different to in- service training and airlines will need to adopt different models of training analysis and delivery in order to be properly performance focussed. Coping would appear to be one such competence that needs a structured, phased approach.

In the context of the earlier discussion, coping includes dealing with instantaneous stress (startle), reducing cognitive load, creating capacity and reinforcing control. But in addition to stress management, coping capacity is shaped by endemic fatigue state, general health, fitness and nutrition. The current interest in pilot mental health post- Germanwings has seen the growth of initiatives such as pilot peer-support mechanisms but the risk is that these might appear to offer a level of mitigation but actually simply further shift ownership of a part of the problem away from the company. Broader lifestyle and wellness campaigns in companies are undoubtedly beneficial but participation is often on a voluntary basis. A true personal readiness programme must engender a recognition of need on the part of the individual while exercising a degree of compulsion. There is a thin line between responsible support on the part of organisations and intrusion and this relationship needs careful navigation. There also appears to be much to suggest that an approach that addresses stress and fatigue as an attitudinal goal, perhaps using methods drawn from behavioural economics, is warranted.

One fundamental question, possibly implied but not so far addressed in this book, is where does organisational responsibility for risk end. Many years ago, I read that Swiss Railways ran a scheme that paid for employees’ skis and bindings to be maintained at the start of the winter season. The company found that the cost was less than the lost productivity arising from employees off work with lower leg injuries. Ownership of risk extended beyond the workplace. Similarly, having once broken down on the motorway, the recovery service mechanic donned his hi-viz jacket as he got out of his vehicle, telling me that in the event of an accident his family would get better compensation if he has taken the correct steps to protect himself. Of course, the jacket would not save his life if struck by a juggernaut on a motorway but wearing the jacket was deemed to reduce risk. Contrast this the aviation experience after a captain was struck and killed by a vehicle while doing the pre-flight inspection. The wearing of hi-viz jackets became mandatory when walking on the ramp and a failure to don a jacket was punishable with a fine.

Issues around sleep hygiene and stress-coping are clearly targets for ab initio training but coping, in the sense of dealing with operation disturbances - threats - is the domain of in-service training. Research in a number of different domains suggests that coping can be developed through task-related training. Physiological stress, as measured by the secretion of hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine, can be reduced through intensive simulator training. Landman et al. (2017) suggest that coping can be enhanced during training by affording pilots the opportunity to better frame situations. In this context, a frame is simply the instantiation of the individual’s mental model held at that moment. Reframing involves adjusting the mental model to better match the current circumstances. In effect, the individual needs to establish a new goal state in relation to the disturbance and to derive the constraint set that now applies. A failure to reframe will result in a failure to fully understand the relevance and meaning of the available information. By providing a greater variety of scenarios with different levels of unpredictability, pilots can develop richer constraint sets which allow for faster switching between goal states. In another study (Landman et al., 2020) it was found that a simple mnemonic could mitigate startle. They trained pilots to use a four-item procedure: (1) Calm down: take a deep breath, sit up straight and relax shoulders and hands. (2) Observe: call out the basic flight parameters. (3) Outline: formulate a hypothesis about the problem. (4) Lead: formulate and execute a plan of action (Landman et al., 2020). Item 1 derives from relaxation therapies and is a well-established coping technique. The remaining three steps are all elements of the other candidate competencies: analysis, planning and deciding. By verbalising parameters, an act of communication, control is exerted over the information gathering process but it also ensures that all crew have the same data upon which to base future action. Although developed in relation to a specific research question - the management of ‘startle’ - we can see an overlap here with the management of threats generally. Those individuals prone to see threats as existential would benefit from using the techniques listed here. This suggests that, in fact, a holistic approach that addresses problems in a broader generic, competence-based sense might serve better than a symptom-directed strategy.

Because of the significance of coping to the safe conduct of flight, I argue that it warrants being considered a competence. There are clearly behaviours that support the maintenance or re-establishment of emotional control and cognitive clarity under conditions of stress and uncertainty. There is underpinning knowledge that supports performance but because of the complex nature of the contributing factors, I would argue that an approach to developing coping requires more than just a training intervention. Ab initio pilots can be prepared for the world of work and, therefore, be provided with foundational knowledge. Appropriate attitudes towards self-management can be inculcated. But the true impact of the workplace and out of work factors will only be experienced once in employment. Effective organisational design and support structures will mitigate some of the sources of debilitation. In-service development should come through exposure in a training environment but there is a clear divide between allowing crew to rehearse the skills of reframing outlined earlier and then applying those skills under conditions of stress. This suggests that we need a multi-phased approach that makes use of different media, appropriate to the pilot’s stage of professional development.

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