A study among British airline pilots shows that 20 per cent of them have scores on a burnout scale that are comparable to those of people that are under burnout treatment.
The authors argue that airline companies need to offer better support and facilities to their pilots to help them cope with their stressful jobs.
Researchers from the Eindhoven University of Technology and the British Airline Pilots’ Association questioned 1,147 active members of the association – and 20 per cent of these report ‘clinical burnout levels’, with over three quarters reporting that they see colleagues fatigued when they arrive at work.
This means they are experiencing ‘high levels of exhaustion and disengagement from work’, according to the researchers, who added that ‘the results clearly show that the pilots have an exceptionally burdening job’.
The study revealed that 88 per cent often see colleagues starting their shift fatigued, 87 per cent feel worn and weary after work, and 68 per cent mention feeling becoming disconnected from their work.
The burnout levels measured in this study are higher than those measured in any other occupation.
Forty per cent of the pilots have ‘very high burnout levels’ (which is a level below the clinical burnout level mentioned earlier).
In an earlier study among 13,000 employees of several occupations the average figure was four per cent.
In the same study the occupation category with the highest chances of burnout was found to be health care professionals, with ‘very high burnout levels’ of up to 14 per cent.
The researchers say that these results are in part not surprising, looking at the prevailing working conditions.
Pilots face regular shift work across different time zones that leads to jetlag.
Their work environment sees them spending a lot of time in small, confined spaces with low humidity and a lot of noise, with very high responsibilities.
The nature of the job means they are away from home very often and hence have difficulties handling home situations.
Also the increased competition in air travel leads to less job security.
Despite these results, the researchers stress that safety did not currently appear to be at stake – roughly half of the pilots report their last flight simulator performance to ‘meet the standards’, and the other half performed ‘above standard’.
However, the researchers did find a strong indirect relationship between the scores on the burnout scale and simulator performance.
They saw that higher pilot burnout reduces the pilot’s efforts to seek challenges and to streamline their job demands.
What is at stake, the researchers say, is the well-being of the pilots.
The researchers ‘advise airline companies to face up to this fact and create programmes to diagnose high burnout levels and to address them by improving their working conditions’.
They add: ‘Also it should become easier for pilots to report burnout symptoms or even to report ‘unfit to fly’ without having to fear heavy consequences.’
Their work is published in the journal Ergonomics.