High levels of stress among air traffic controllers (ATCs) were first widely reported in the United States in the 1970 Corson Report (US Senate 1970), which focused on working conditions such as overtime, few regular work breaks, increasing air traffic, few vacations, poor physical work environment and “mutual resentment and antagonism” between management and labour. Such conditions contributed to ATC job actions in 1968–69. In addition, early medical research, including a major 1975–78 Boston University study (Rose, Jenkins and Hurst 1978), suggested that ATCs may face a higher risk of stress-related illness, including hypertension.
Following the 1981 US ATC strike, in which job stress was a major issue, the Department of Transportation again appointed a task force to examine stress and morale. The resulting 1982 Jones Report indicated that FAA employees in a wide variety of job titles reported negative results for job design, work organization, communication systems, supervisory leadership, social support and satisfaction. The typical form of ATC stress was an acute episodic incident (such as a near mid-air collision) along with interpersonal tensions stemming from management style. The task force reported that 6% of the ATC sample was “burned out” (having a large and debilitating loss of self-confidence in ability to do the job). This group represented 21% of those 41 years of age and older and 69% of those with 19 or more years of service.
A 1984 review by the Jones task force of its recommendations concluded that “conditions are as bad as in 1981, or perhaps a bit worse”. Major concerns were increasing traffic volume, inadequate staffing, low morale and an increasing burnout rate. Such conditions led to the re-unionization of US ATCs in 1987 with the election of the National Air Traffic Controllers Organization (NATCA) as their bargaining representative.
In a 1994 survey, New York City area ATCs reported continuing staffing shortages and concerns about job stress, shift work and indoor air quality. Recommendations for improving morale and health included transfer opportunities, early retirement, more flexible schedules, exercise facilities at work and increased staffing. In 1994, a greater proportion of Level 3 and 5 ATCs reported high burnout than ATCs in 1981 and 1984 national surveys (except for ATCs working in centres in 1984). Level 5 facilities have the highest level of air traffic, and Level 1, the lowest (Landsbergis et al. 1994). Feelings of burnout were related to having experienced a “near miss” in the past 3 years, age, years working as an ATC, working in high-traffic Level 5 facilities, poor work organization and poor supervisor and co-worker support.
Research also continues on appropriate shift schedules for ATCs, including the possibility of a 10-hour, 4-day shift schedule. The long-term health effects of the combination of rotating shifts and compressed work weeks are not known.
A collectively bargained programme to reduce ATC job stress in Italy
The company in charge of all civil air traffic in Italy (AAAV) employs 1,536 ATCs. AAAV and union representatives drew up several agreements between 1982 and 1991 to improve working conditions. These include:
1. Modernizing radio systems and automating aeronautical information, flight data processing and air traffic management. This provided for more reliable information and more time for making decisions, eliminating many risky traffic peaks and providing for a more balanced workload.
2. Reducing work hours. The operative work week is now 28 to 30 hours.
3. Changing shift schedules:
- rapid shift speed: one day on each shift
- one night shift followed by 2 days rest
- adjust of shift length to workload: 5 to 6 hours for morning; 7 hours for afternoon; 11 to 12 hours for night
- short naps on the night shift
- keeping shift rotation as regular as possible to allow better organization of personal, family and social life
- a long break (45 to 60 minutes) for a meal during work shifts.
4. Reduce environmental stressors. Attempts have been made to reduce noise and provide more light.
5. Improving the ergonomics of new consoles, screens and chairs.
6. Improving physical fitness. Gyms are provided in the largest facilities.
Research during this period suggests that the programme was beneficial. The night shift was not very stressful; ATCs’ performance did not worsen significantly at the end of three shifts; only 28 ATCs were dismissed for health reasons in 7 years; and a large decline in “near misses” occurred despite major increases in air traffic.