I stress about stress even before there is stress to stress about.
Anyone who has been in the ag aviation business even for a little while knows a fair amount about stress. Perhaps too much. While we discuss metal stress and fatigue without breaking a sweat, the human side of the stress equation is often not in the conversation.
Noise. Heat. Vibrations. Winds. Farmers lined up at the airstrip—a sudden invasion of insects devastating a crop. Fuel prices skyrocketing. A birdstrike missed the prop but took off the pump fan propeller. Wake up call at 4 am. Flying 16 hours a day, taking a sprog pilot on board for a first season. The list goes on and on, with all these items and many more contributing factors to rising stress levels.
It’s enough to take your breath away, but it’s just part and parcel of the industry and something you have to put up with. Or do you?
More and more, we are finding that stress is a pandemic problem by itself, not only in ag aviation but across the general population. Stress is related to the six leading causes of death: heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, accidents, cirrhosis of the liver, and suicide.
As with many things, there is good news and bad news. We have just covered some of the bad news that goes along with stress, and it’s time for some good news. Stress is not altogether bad. In fact, at low levels, it is of benefit in helping us to stay alert and be on the lookout for potential trouble coming our way. Coupled with this is that we can manage stress given a few tips and techniques. And one more piece of good news. It doesn’t take the same amount of time to get rid of stress as it does to accumulate it.
So, what is this oft-mentioned malady called stress? It’s easy to know when we feel stressed. Headaches, tight shoulders, trouble sleeping at night, short temper, and getting upset with relatively minor issues. These are the visible and very apparent signs that we are climbing the stress ladder.
Then there are the medical symptoms that we are often unaware of. Respiration, heart rate, and blood pressure increase as your body unconsciously and automatically responds to the cause (stressor) from both internal and external sources. Your temperature rises, blood vessels constrict, and your metabolism speeds up, all courtesy of an evolutionary response to danger, real or perceived.
I once heard this automatic response system described as an ancient apparatus running outdated software. Great to have when you are living in the jungle and have to worry about predators that can eat you. Not so great when you live in the modern world where stressors are often as much psychological as physical. How many people who don’t usually engage in public speaking feel comfortable giving a speech in front of a large audience and instead are stressed to the max thinking about the upcoming event rather than looking forward to it as an invigorating and satisfying experience?
Okay, fine and good, but what in the world does all this have to do with flying?
The performance of any task is directly related to our level of stress. If very low, we are apt not to pay attention and consequently perform poorly. As stress rises to an acceptable level, we become more motivated and focused and tend to perform well. If stress levels rise too high, we become preoccupied to the point where our performance is degraded.
To take that into the field, it means that while our ability to physically fly the aircraft will not be directly affected by stress, our judgment and our ability to problem-solve will be significantly compromised as the level of stress rises.
Every individual has specific responses to stress, with attendant signs and symptoms that highlight rising stress levels. The symptoms include exhaustion and fatigue, anxiety, digestive problems, irritability, and negativity. Recognizing these is an excellent first step in managing the associated stressor.
Another proven stress-buster includes having your operation well organized and well prepared for the season. During the off-season, a lot can be done to ensure you have all you need – in terms of people, equipment, and standard operating procedures – to get the job done safely and effectively. Ensure all your crew members are fully trained in their primary jobs and how to establish and maintain a safe working environment around aircraft.
Effective time management is another key to helping keep stress to manageable levels. If you are overloaded with things to do, and you feel like you’re running as fast as you can just trying to stay ahead of the oncoming tsunami, take a break from the action and review what you are doing and what additional resources you might need to keep the temperature and pressure readings in the green.
Stress and its ill-bred cousin fatigue are often cited as causal factors in accident investigations. But stress is tough to quantify because we have no firm standard of stress measurement. Wouldn’t it be great to have a smartwatch that indicated stress levels with green, yellow, and red bands? That way, not only could we self-monitor, but other crew members could also keep an eye out for trouble.
Another common factor in accident investigations is that a single event does not cause many accidents but rather a series of events. It’s a vicious cycle where stress from one problem causes a time crunch, which affects the next problem, and so on.
The old saying goes, “When you’re up to your armpits in alligators, it’s sometimes hard to remember that your original intention was to drain the swamp.” Taking the time to prepare for the task at hand fully and taking the time to unwind when the personal pressure gauge is in the caution area pays enormous dividends. It’s not easy to do (damn those alligators), but it is worth it.