Alaska White


By CAA Chief Advisor of Human Factors, Alaska White

BSc Psychology (Otago); MSc Psychology (Distinction) (Otago)

 

Working long hours is the norm for an aircraft maintenance engineer. Add in employer and client demands, scheduling difficulties and delays, parts shortages, often sub-optimal working conditions and environments, high mental workload, stress, and pressure, and you can begin to imagine what a day in the life of an aircraft engineer might look like.

When mental health in aviation is covered in various media, it almost always focuses on pilots and air crew. But too often it’s the engineers, technicians, mechanics, and support people who don’t get a mention, despite their mental health and wellbeing being critical to aircraft safety.

Mental health. We all have it.

When people think about ‘mental health’, the distress associated with things like depression and anxiety come to mind. But mental ‘health’ is our cognitive (how we know, learn and understand things), behavioural, and emotional wellbeing.

We all have mental health, but its quality differs from person to person because we have different lives and working situations, plus genetic differences that can predispose us to certain conditions. Just like your physical health, mental health is not static. Your mental health changes day to day, week to week, month to month… you get the idea. As your life changes, so do stressors and your ability to manage and cope on any given day. The stressors affecting you at 20 years old might not be stressors at 30 or 40 and, if they are, you may have ways to manage them and be better able to cope.

She’ll be right and the mental health stigma

The classic Kiwi saying of ‘she’ll be right’ masks the mental health reality we face as a nation. Mental health struggles are more common than you probably think, with research indicating 47 percent of New Zealanders will experience mental distress or mental illness in their lifetime (Health New Zealand, 2023).

It’s no secret the stigma is more prevalent when it comes to men’s mental health and wellbeing. While moves have been made to remove the stigma, it continues in many industries. Aircraft engineering, being a male-dominated field, is no exception.

Engineer working on a componentDo any of these barriers resonate with you and prevent you from seeking mental health support? You:

  • struggle to identify and communicate emotion
  • believe that talking about emotion and struggles is weak and ‘not man enough’
  • feel ashamed, judged, and embarrassed for speaking up and asking for help
  • don’t want to ‘burden’ anyone else with your concerns
  • feel pressured to ‘be a man’
  • have had negative experiences when talking about mental health concerns in the past.

The truth is that most people find talking about mental health struggles, and being emotionally vulnerable, uncomfortable. You feel exposed, and initially it’s tough to say, out loud, the words that describe your vulnerability.

But the only way to become more confident and comfortable with doing so, is to dip your toe in the water, and start having those conversations. It does get easier, and you get better at it the more you do it. It’s a skill to practise, keep practising, and encourage others to do likewise.

The creep

Mental health decline quite often happens slowly, creeping up on you, and we aren’t typically the ones who notice it first – it’s our friends, family, and colleagues who notice the shift in behaviour, and that something’s ‘not quite right’.

It might not be one event that triggers a decline either, such as grief, a newborn baby, or sudden life changes. One day you could be feeling good, coping with stressors, pressures, and work demands just fine, and a cranky client on the phone pushing for their aircraft to be ready in a couple of days might not bother you too much. But the next day, as deadlines approach, those same stressors and demands become too much and you feel overwhelmed. The pressure, tension, frustration, and mental exhaustion builds, and you succumb to the weight of it. You might think it’s sudden, but stressors and pressures will have been building and, when you really think about it, you realise it’s not so sudden.

Culprits of mental health decline

Remote work and social isolation

Fingers on a laptopHumans are social animals, and we have an in-built need and motivation to connect with others and belong to a group. Positive social contact and connection are important for our mental health, even if it’s in small doses – sorry introverts, you need social contact too.

The benefits of positive social interaction are far-reaching, including higher self-esteem and confidence. It also improves your ability to cope with, and recover from, stressful situations, improves anxiety and depressive symptoms, improves sleep and quality of life, and even helps prevent serious illnesses such as heart disease, dementia, and stroke.

Working alone or in isolation provides little to no face-to-face interaction, and studies link social isolation with depression, anxiety, poor sleep quality, impaired immune system (so you get sick more easily), feelings of loneliness, and increased stress. Other impacts include consciousness of a lack of support, disconnection from colleagues and friends, lower self-esteem, and less confidence. If there’s also a lack of physical separation between work and personal life, these negative feelings can cause burnout.

Unhealthy organisational culture

Your work and your work environment affect your mental health, and that includes organisational culture.

Organisational culture is the beliefs, attitudes, norms, and values shared within an organisation. Your mental health and, in turn, your performance may be affected in situations where:

  • teamwork and good communication cease to exist
  • concerns are dismissed or swept under the rug
  • there’s unresolved conflict, bullying, harassment, violence, unrealistic workload demands and timeframes.

There are poor working conditions – such as a lack of, and poor quality, tools and equipment, or you’re exposed to the elements. A good and healthy culture promotes wellbeing, breaks, teamwork, and harmonious relationships. It allocates resources sensibly so workload is manageable and shared appropriately. There’s also a shared situational awareness, good behaviour is encouraged and reinforced, and employees feel supported.

We can ‘try’ not to let work affect us at home, and vice versa. But they’re not mutually exclusive, so it’s important to create and contribute to an environment supporting our mental health in both arenas.

Stress

Engine close upStress is the body’s natural response to a stressor that disturbs our ‘normal’ state of being, and it’s our natural, built-in response to danger – perceived or real. You might not be running from tigers in a jungle, but the body can’t tell the difference between a real or perceived threat, so it responds in the same way – with an increase in the stress hormone, cortisol. It prepares you to ‘fight, flee or freeze’. Your heart may beat faster, and your breathing rate may increase. You may start to sweat. Your thoughts may start to race.

Your thoughts alone can drive this bodily response. If you’ve got a client storming into a workshop demanding to know why their aircraft isn’t ready, your brain treats that as a threat. Other factors in your environment – such as weather impacting deadlines – can drive your stress response. And self-imposed pressure to deliver flawless results can also prompt you to experience that cortisol spike.

It takes practice to calm these responses down in the moment, and reassure your brain and body that it’s not a life-threatening situation.

A small level of short-lived stress can be helpful for motivation day to day, but when you’re under a lot of stress and cortisol doesn’t have the opportunity to decrease, it has serious mental and physical health implications – heart disease being the most common. Stress is a double-edged sword.

Being stressed makes you stress about being stressed so it’s important to take breaks, rest, sleep well, and mitigate and manage stressors to give your body and brain a break.

High mental workload

Engineer sitting in cockpit of small planeMental workload is the mental demand (effort) placed on you. Confusing or bad task design, seemingly endless lists of things to do with not enough time to do them, approaching deadlines, being under-resourced, or having to complete complex tasks (with high demands on your attention) all add to your mental workload.

Think of your brain’s mental capacity like a cup. A complex task requiring careful thought and precision fills your cup more than a simple and straightforward task. Your brain needs enough room in the cup to be able to handle day-to-day life, respond to new information and changes to the environment (for instance, if there’s an emergency).

With a few simple or small tasks your cup mightn’t be very full, but when you add pressure and stress, these simple tasks fill the cup very quickly and what were once simple tasks now feel a lot more mentally demanding. If your cup gets too full or overfills, you become mentally overloaded, overwhelmed, and stressed.

Some common effects of high mental workload include fatigue, poor judgement and decision-making, a struggle to focus, and switching frequently between tasks so that prioritising thoughts and tasks becomes difficult. You may be rushing, which causes you to make errors.

Slow down, prioritise tasks, and control and distribute workload where you can, to prevent yourself (or your staff) from becoming overloaded.

Lack of sleep

You may notice after a poor night’s sleep your brain is a bit foggier. Perhaps you’re a bit grumpy and impatient, you can’t seem to focus and are distracted easily, and seemingly minor inconveniences can be enough to send you over the edge. Sleep deprivation and poor-quality sleep contribute to the onset of mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety, and make our ability to cope with stress that much more difficult. Other effects include an increased risk for type 2 diabetes, a suppressed immune system, and cardiovascular issues.

Sleep is essential for our survival, and there’s robust evidence that supports sleep being critical for our physical and mental health, and important for regulating our emotions, our behaviour, repairing our immune system and our cognitive functions.

Good quality and sufficient sleep make such a difference to you mentally. If you’re having trouble sleeping, speak to your doctor – your brain and body will thank you.

Fatigue

Fatigue is an overwhelming feeling of exhaustion – mentally or physically. It is an inevitable consequence of insufficient sleep, long periods of wakefulness, and circadian rhythm disruption that comes with factors like shift work, or caring for young children.

Fatigue creeps up on you slowly, degrading cognitive function and performance, and affecting your psychological wellbeing. Some effects include:

  • poorer accuracy and precision – performance becomes inconsistent and ‘sloppy’
  • lower standards of performance unconsciously become acceptable – near enough becomes good enough
  • degraded attention – you’re easily distracted, you have reduced situational awareness, you struggle to concentrate and prioritise tasks, your reaction time is delayed, your attention ‘tunnels’, your alertness and vigilance reduce
  • routine activities become difficult to perform
  • communication and relationships break down, attitude and mood deteriorate and social interaction declines
  • judgement, decision-making and information-processing are all degraded
  • you’re experiencing microsleeps – involuntary lapses into sleep (sometimes in dangerous situations, for instance while driving)
  • your memory is impaired – you’re forgetful and you don’t follow Standard Operating Procedures.

The human factors are connected

The human factors (including the culprits above) don’t exist in isolation. They affect each other one way or another. For example, quality and quantity of sleep affects your cognitive function for the coming day(s) and your cognitive function affects things like your decision-making and problem-solving ability, and how much you can concentrate.

So, if you’re stressed about aircraft part shortages or finances, and you’re not sleeping well, you can bet that your brain and performance will take a hit, especially when it comes to consecutive nights of poor sleep and cumulative ‘sleep debt’.

How you can support yourself

Prevention and early intervention are critical. Below are some actions you can take to support your own mental health and wellbeing.

Female engineer working on a plane engine

  • Sleep! If you’re experiencing sleeping difficulties, talk to your doctor (sooner rather than later). Practise good ‘sleep hygiene’.
    See the University of Otago's tips for healthy sleep(external link)

  • It’s easy to become ‘busy all the time’. Rest and have down-time.

  • Exercise regularly – it increases blood flow to the brain and means more oxygen, dopamine (the ‘feel good’ chemical in the brain) and endorphins (the chemicals in the brain that can reduce stress, alleviate pain, improve mood, and enhance wellbeing). Exercise doesn’t have to be exhausting and strenuous. It can be taking the dog for a walk around the block or going for a swim.

  • Seek mental health support – your doctor is the first point of contact. If your workplace offers an employee assistance programme, take advantage of it.

  • Join a support group – or think about starting one.

  • Eat well and keep hydrated – the gut is your second brain and produces 90 percent of your body’s serotonin (the primary chemical in the brain responsible for mood). The microbiome in your digestive system influences your mood, weight, and immune system. Happier gut = happier brain.

  • Watch how much you drink – alcohol is a toxin and a depressant. The effects of alcohol are quick, but have delayed negative consequences, for example a hangover. It can be appealing to have social drinks at the end of a long week to decompress, but be mindful that alcohol can negatively impact your mental health, especially when it comes to dependency and addiction. If you’re experiencing difficulties with substance misuse and alcohol, talk to your doctor.

  • Manage expectations – communicate! Let people (clients and colleagues, and so on) know of any delays. Be realistic with deadlines and workload and communicate this to minimise assumptions and confusion, and to create a ‘shared understanding’ of the situation.

  • Manage stressors to minimise their effects – easier said than done right? But work out what triggers stress for you, control what you can, and seek support if you need it.

  • Stay connected and create a good support network around you – with friends, family and colleagues, for example. It’s easy to deprioritise social connectedness and put it on the back burner and before you know it, you’ve slipped into withdrawal and social isolation. Check in on your friends, family, and colleagues – you never know what someone is going through, and being a listening ear can mean a lot to someone.

  • Create and contribute to a positive and healthy organisational culture where everyone benefits.

  • Set work boundaries, do things you enjoy and keep up with hobbies – it’s healthy to take a break from work, and hobbies are a great way to decompress and reduce stress.

  • Go easier on yourself – remember, we’re all human. We’re all fallible and we all feel stressed and low from time to time. If you’re feeling low for prolonged periods, seek support and talk to your doctor.

Where to find support

Getting help online

Mental Health Foundation(external link)
Resources, posters, pamphlets etc can be ordered for free.

Yellow Brick Road (external link)
Supports families toward mental wellbeing.

Sir John Kirwan Foundation(external link)

Depression.org.nz(external link)
Includes The Journal, a free online self-help tool, and includes specific advice on helping someone at work.

Tips for healthy sleep(external link)

Talk to someone

Need to talk? – text 1737 or visit 1737.org.nz(external link)
Need to talk? Is a group for when you’re feeling down, overwhelmed, anxious or need someone to talk to.

Samaritans – 0800 726 666
Confidential support to anyone who is lonely or in emotional distress 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Lifeline – 0800 543 354
For counselling and support.

Rural Support Trust – 0800 787 254
Rural people helping rural people.

In a crisis

Mental health crisis assessment teams(external link)

 Ask us about human factors

If you have any questions about this topic, email humanfactors@caa.govt.nz

 

Posted in Engineering and maintenance, Health and human factors;

Posted 32 days ago