We’ve all the seen the movies that seem to show what it’s like being an air traffic controller. There’s usually a large number of people at computers with several monitors each. The room is dimly lit and everyone looks stressed out. Some kind of aviation emergency unfolds and the air traffic controllers save the day just in the nick of time.
It’s an exciting scenario, but it also looks like it would be a very stressful work environment. I know I’ve heard stories over the years about just how stressful being an air traffic controller is. If you’re like me, you always wondered how true those stories are.
So, is being an air traffic controller stressful?
Being an air traffic controller is an extremely stressful job and is widely considered to be one of the most stressful jobs in the world.
In this article we’ll take a closer look at how stressful it is, why it’s so stressful, and what’s being done to help make the lives of air traffic controllers less stressful.
How Stressful is it?
There have been many studies, surveys, and interviews done to assess how much stress an air traffic controller deals with on a daily basis.
There have also been many articles written to compare the stress of being an air traffic controller with the stress of other jobs.
The result of all of this is that we now know that being an air traffic controller is not only stressful, but more stressful than most jobs out there.
Depending on the source and other details involved in the study, being an air traffic controller is generally considered to be one of the top 5 most stressful jobs out there.
Related: Requirements to be an air traffic controller
What Makes it Stressful?
There are many aspects of the job that make being an air traffic controller stressful. In this section we will look at some of the leading causes of stress in their career.
As you can imagine, there is a lot of stress that comes with being an air traffic controller. Making a mistake or having a “bad day” can risk the lives of hundreds of people on a flight.
In an average workday, a single air traffic controller in responsible for the lives of thousands of people including passengers, pilots, and cabin crew.
This enormous responsibility creates a lot of stress in the role since you know just how serious the outcome can be in the event of a disaster.
Long & Unconventional Hours
Air traffic controllers are needed 24/7/365. While some facilities aren’t open 24 hours per day, there are still ATC’s covering the traffic for that facility.
That means that you have to perform this already stressful job in the middle of the night, early in the morning, on weekends, etc. This makes for a very challenging scenario since ATC’s can find themselves working in the middle of the night or after not getting a full night sleep.
They also sometimes have to work odd schedules to make up for being short staffed. This can lead to 6 day work weeks, overtime, and other schedules that are not optimal.
Constant Busy Workload
Being an air traffic controller is a busy job. They are not often just sitting around and you won’t find them surfing the internet or scrolling social media while working.
The duties of their job keep them engaged nearly the entire time they are working. This can be stressful as people feel like they rarely have a time to relax and let their guard down.
On occasion, air traffic controllers have to deal with extremely dangerous emergency situations. It might not happen often, but when it does they find themselves in a scenario where they have to make split second decisions to help a plane land safely, avoid crashing, or avert some other type of emergency.
The nature of these emergencies can create a lot of stress for the air traffic controller since they have no control over when it happens. For many ATC’s this is actually the most stressful part of the job. These moments are very demanding and create stress that lasts much after the emergency situation is over.
Air traffic controllers also rely on a lot of equipment and technology to do their jobs.
This includes using several monitors, computers, radar, phones, and more. They have to take in a lot of information and effectively communicate with others to ask questions and give direction.
This can also be very stressful since the equipment is complex and requires a high degree of skill and focus to use. To make matters worse, if there is a technology issue or problem, an ATC can find themselves having to improvise and find a way to work through that issue while also doing their job.
Impact of Stress in the Role
There are several negative effects of the stress in the workplace for air traffic controllers. Let’s take a look at some of the most important ones and their effects.
As people become more stressed they become more likely to make a mistake. This is true for most jobs and is especially true for air traffic controllers.
The reason for this is that you start to feel fatigued (mentally and physically) as the stress builds up. Making a mistake as an ATC can lead to a very dangerous situation for the people on the aircraft being directed. Pilots depend on ATC’s to give accurate and timely info. In the event of an error, the safety of the pilot, cabin crew, and all passengers is in jeopardy.
The more stressful a job is, the more likely someone is to quit for another job. In the case of air traffic controllers, the high stress can not only lead to high turnover but to a staffing shortage since the hiring and training requirements are very strict.
Turnover is expensive, inefficient, and causes a lot of problems. Stress plays a big role in making people leave a job and creating this turnover.
Employees that feel stressed and over worked don’t always quit their jobs. Sometimes they stick around but just become more unhappy with time. This leads to a workforce that, even if they don’t quit, is less efficient and more disengaged.
As you can imagine, being more disengaged also can lead to mistakes and unsafe situations.
How do Air Traffic Controllers Manage Stress?
Now that we know some of the negative effects of stress in the workplace for air traffic controllers, let’s take a closer look at what is being done to help manage and mitigate this stress. Here are some of the steps being taken to accomplish this goal:
Air traffic controllers are typically expected to take a break every 2 hours.
This is to help them stay focused and relieve stress from the role. These breaks are typically 20-30 minutes long and are frequent enough during their shift so that they never feel they’ve been doing the job too long.
Asking for Help
Another way to manage stress for air traffic controllers is being able to ask for help when they get busy or find themselves in a demanding situation.
This makes the job less stressful since you not only know help is there if you need it but someone steps in almost immediately when you ask them to.
This can be the difference between feeling supported and relaxed instead of overwhelmed or stressed out.
Maintaining Physical Health
People typically handle stress better if their are in good physical health. This applies not only to air traffic controllers but to all jobs.
Some of the things that are recommended that air traffic controllers do include:
- Get adequate sleep/rest
- Eat a health diet
- Preventative care for other health issues
Maintaining Mental Health
In addition to making sure they are physically healthy, air traffic controllers also focus on making sure they are in a good place mentally. This means managing their mental health by doing things like:
- Staying current on training so they feel confident
- Discussing work problems and concerns with manager
- Preparing for workload effectively
- Living a balances life outside of work
Stress can be very difficult and dangerous in this career, so taking these steps to manage it is even more important than in most careers.
As you can see, being an air traffic controller is a very stressful career. While there are definitely upsides to the job (like great pay, benefits, and a sense of accomplishment) it can be very demanding of the professionals that do the job every day.
While this stress can have a negative effect on both ATC’s and the aviation industry as a whole, the industry is doing a lot to try and mitigate this stress. This will lead to a higher quality of life for air traffic controllers as well as an even high level of safety in the aviation industry.
If you’re interested in becoming an air traffic controller and would like to learn more, you should visit the FAA’s site to see more of the details. It just might be the career you’ve always dreamed of.