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The New Zealand Air Line Pilots' Association Newsletter.

Top tips: Maintaining optimal health despite the challenges of the profession

NZALPA’s Peer Assistance Network (PAN) exists to support those experiencing difficult times in their lives that can have an impact on mental health.

While many issues such as depression and anxiety aren’t specific to the aviation industry, the effect they can have on the ability for a pilot or air traffic controller to do their work is greater. PAN through its volunteers and supervision by aviation psychologist Allan Baker provides a friendly ear and referral if needed.

“It is not easy, but it is our responsibility to reach out for support if we need it and PAN provides that confidential support from someone who identifies with your profession,” Medical and Welfare Director Andy Pender said.

“Equally, we have the responsibility to protect ourselves in the best way possible by aiming for optimal health.

“This will not only improve our mental health and psychological wellbeing but puts us in the best possible position with our lifestyle and relationships so that when we do encounter any issues, we can tackle them head on.

“By making small changes, we can significantly enhance our overall mental health and wellbeing.”

Here are some tips from the Medical and Welfare Team:

  1. Get sufficient restorative sleep:

    Restorative sleep is essential for maintaining optimal levels of alertness and performance. The reality is that human motor performance and cognition reduce exponentially from poor quality sleep. This poses a particular challenge for pilots and air traffic controllers who must maintain alertness despite working non-traditional work hours, which can be less conducive to sleep. While the suggestions below are simple and obvious, it’s easy to forget the basics when fatigue kicks in.

    To promote opportunities for restorative sleep you can:

    • Block out light from the bedroom (e.g. use blackout curtains or roller shutters).
    • Reduce the impact of noise that enters the bedroom (talk to your family about your sleeping times; use ear plugs or white noise such as a fan).
    • Only use your bedroom for sleep, relaxation and sex (remove anything related to work and all technical devices).
    • Make sure the bedroom is a thermo-neutral zone (not too hot or too cold).
    • Establish a pre-bed routine, which includes quiet/relaxing activities – avoid electronic devices prior to sleeping.
    • Minimise use of caffeine and alcohol in the hours before bedtime.
    • Be careful of prioritising your social life over sleep and aim to strike a balance of the two.

  2. Make time for regular exercise:

    Exercise is not only essential for maintaining optimal physical wellbeing, it also helps to increase energy levels, reduce fatigue, improve mood, promote restorative sleep and enhance your capacity to cope with stress. If, due to non-traditional work hours you struggle to establish a regular exercise routine, even small amounts of exercise is better than none, so make sure you keep moving even if you feel fatigued. Ideas for you to increase activity include:

    • Set yourself a walking, running or swimming challenge – you can generally do these exercises anywhere.
    • Attend the gym and work to a programme – there are limitless choices of facilities with some operating 24/7.
    • Undertake activities with a friend or colleague to keep you motivated.
    • Increase your motivation by committing to an exercise goal (e.g. signing up for a fun run or a bike race).

  3. Manage excess arousal effectively:

    Prolonged stress without periods of rest and recovery can be detrimental to wellbeing. Effectively managing stress and learning to how to ‘switch off’ can relax your nervous system, recharging your batteries so that you can perform optimally. Effective strategies to manage stress include:

    • Be organised and learn how to prioritise.
    • Practice mindfulness techniques to reduce the impact of unhelpful thinking patterns.
    • Practice deep breathing techniques such as diaphragmatic breathing.
    • Learn a relaxation technique such as progressive muscle relaxation.
    • Make time for regular exercise as outlined above.
    • Integrate “slow time” into your day (consider a slow walk, swim or mindful yoga).
    • If you are worrying about a problem, ask yourself, is the problem solvable? If ‘yes’ then start problem solving to come up with a solution. If ‘no’, practice acceptance and let go.
  4. Reach out to others for support

    If you already have a suite of effective stress management techniques then keep at it. If not, consider reaching out to friends, family and colleagues when the going gets tough. NZALPA’s Peer Assistance can help with supporting you through stressful times and/or advice on the implementation of the tips listed above, and other ideas, if required.

Parts of this article make reference to an article prepared by contributors Cate Larkins – Industrial Officer Australian Federation of Air Pilots (AFAP) and Eleasa Mullavey, Psychological Health Intervention of the AFAP. The full article was originally published in NZALPA’s Stable Approach [winter 2015] with the permission of AFAP.

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