Flying on Empty: Dealing with Burnout in Aviation

What is Burnout?

Stress is something we endure consistently and constantly throughout our lives. Short-lived stress is not necessarily harmful, and we might even find stress to be quite useful especially if it is linked to a specific goal. But if high levels of stress feel like the tension is never-ending and leaves you feeling hopeless, empty, and dispirited then you are probably experiencing burnout, and this is quite a terrifying place to be at. This article will give a brief overview of what burnout is and how to recognise its symptoms, risk factors to burn out, and what you and the workplace can do to help prevent and cope with burnout in the aviation industry. 

Burnout is a psychological state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. Burnout is made up of three main parts:

  1. Exhaustion – the draining of emotional resources that leaves someone feeling overextended and depleted of their usual emotional resources.
  2. Cynicism – a negative or excessively detached response to various aspects of a job.
  3. Reduced efficacy – a decline in someone’s feelings of competence and successful achievement in their work.

Burnout occurs when one feels overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and unable to meet constant demands. If stress continues to be present, you begin to lose interest or motivation that led you to take on a certain role in the first place. The chronic nature of stress can lead to burnout. This is particularly relevant in high-stress environments like aviation, where professionals often face long hours of work, high expectations, and significant responsibilities.

Understanding Burnout, its Symptoms, and Risk Factors

Some of the most common effects of stress in aviation can be categorised as physical, mental, and emotional. The first step in preventing burnout is recognising its symptoms. Typical physical symptoms can include feeling chronically tiresome, frazzle, experiencing insomnia, and having a lack of energy, thus feeling weak. Physical fatigue may also include concentration problems, irritability, and physical complaints like headaches, dizziness, stomach pain, and muscle aches. If you’re experiencing these symptoms, it’s important to take them seriously and seek help if necessary. Ignoring the early signs of burnout can lead to more severe health problems down the line, including depression and anxiety disorders.

Mental fatigue can manifest itself in negative attitudes oriented either towards work, friends, partners, customers, collaborators, chiefs, your job and even towards your family. The emotional side of burnout can include experiencing feelings of depression, uncertainty in yourself and your self-worth, helplessness, apathy, and the disappearance of previous satisfactions. 

People at higher risk of burnout often have difficulty saying no, set high expectations for themselves, have trouble asking for help, and are highly motivated and engaged. Situational and contextual factors, such as unclear tasks or a lot of pressure to perform at work, can also contribute to burnout.

Preventing and Coping with Burnout

Preventing burnout ideally is done holistically – by taking care of ourselves on an individual basis with our various needs but also our workplace has a responsibility to offer conditions that prevent people experiencing chronic high-levels of stress that can lead to burnout. 

Individually, this involves taking good care of your physical, emotional, social, spiritual, cognitive, and mental health. This means prioritising self-care, setting realistic goals, and seeking support when needed. It’s important to remember that it’s not selfish to take care of yourself – in fact, it’s necessary for your success and wellbeing. Speaking about what you are going through and reorganising your work environment to be effective in preventing burnout can go a long way. One simple act that can further help to prevent burnout is learning how to say “no” and setting the boundaries you need to work whilst taking care of yourself. Finally, it’s important to maximise rest time. On a practical level this means reducing the number of flight days per month as much as possible and increasing rest time. This can help prevent burnout and promote overall wellbeing.

The workplace plays a crucial role in health protection and health promotion. In the aviation industry, this means addressing both human and safety needs. An integrated health, wellbeing, and safety culture can help prevent burnout and promote overall wellbeing. This approach depends on trust and the specification of appropriate protections, so that aviation workers feel safe to routinely report wellbeing levels and challenges, and their impact on operational safety. Another way forward in this area for the aviation industry is to give importance to the need to break down barriers, improve understandings of pilot stressors and fears, and de-stigmatise mental health. This can help create a more supportive and understanding environment, which can in turn help prevent burnout.

In conclusion, burnout is a serious issue that can affect anyone, but it’s particularly relevant for aviation professionals due to the high-stress nature of their work. However, by understanding the signs of burnout, taking steps to prevent it, and promoting a healthy and supportive workplace culture, it’s possible to prevent burnout and promote overall wellbeing.

Learn a thing or two about burnout prevention!

PsyPotential has partnered with Raven to launch “Burnout Prevention for Aviation Professionals” course.

“Burnout Prevention for Aviation Professionals” Course

500.00 590.00
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