Each year, around 2.5 million flights and 250 million people fly above our heads in UK skies. Our Air Traffic Controllers work with pilots to make that happen efficiently and, most importantly, safely.
It’s a 24 hour, 365 days a year job, so shift work is used to ensure there is always cover. Thankfully, being an air traffic controller is one of few jobs where you can’t take your work home with you, but its safety critical nature means that rest is really important.
I spoke to a few controllers from across NATS about the importance of a good night’s sleep and working around the challenges of shift work.
Mark is a controller at Heathrow – the UK’s busiest airport. He’s worked as an air traffic controller for over 20 years so when it comes to working shifts, he’s no beginner: “There’s a very distinct difference between being tired and being fatigued, and working at Heathrow ensures that the day is never dull.
“There’s always something in addition to the significant traffic levels to keep you alert and actively involved in what you are doing.”
Similar to Mark, Sarah is also used to shifts. Working at our control centre in Swanwick, her shift pattern is two early mornings, followed by two late afternoons two-night shifts before four days off – and repeat!
She said: “Working this sort of pattern requires you to swing your body clock forwards and back by 12 hours at least twice a week, so there is always going to be an effect on your sleep! It’s meant that I’m now an expert napper and don’t find it odd at all to be sleeping at any time of the day or night.
“It’s easy to forget the rest of the world doesn’t work shifts – imagine what it would be like if the postman rang the bell and the ice cream van played its jingles at the equivalent of 3am every night!”
Elaine is a newly qualified controller at Aberdeen Airport – one of NATS most unique sites with a challenging mix of helicopter and fixed wing aircraft. She said: “It’s nice to be able to go shopping during weekdays while most people are working.
“You have to get used to varying your bed times regularly as you go from early to late shifts, but I haven’t found it too difficult to adjust. I now find that I’m terrible at laying in on my days off though. Once my body has had 8 hours sleep I’m wide awake!”
Like most things in life, working unsociable hours gets easier over time – and our controllers each have their own tips and tricks to help them manage.
Mark said: “After a period of exposure to shift work you tend to settle into it fairly well. When I first qualified and in my early 20’s I was a bit of night owl and preferred later shifts. Now I’m in my 40’s I seem to have had a subconscious shift and now prefer the early shifts.
Sarah said: “I think the key to coping with such varied shift work is to embrace the inevitable changes to your lifestyle and don’t fight it! I try to be kind to myself and plan my life activities around what sleep I can expect the following night.
“When my working week is over and family life means I need to move back to a normal sleep pattern immediately, I limit my post-night shift sleep to just the morning and go swimming or to the park to ensure I’m tired again by the time the evening comes.”
For Elaine, exercise is the best thing for resetting the body clock: “Going for a run after an early morning shift is often the last thing I feel like doing but it really does help me sleep better. I’ve also got really good at meal prep so I don’t get caught without an evening meal at work.”
Although shift work can be difficult, it comes with a lot of positives. For Sarah, one of the unexpected benefits is “how much more resilient it makes you to changes in your routine compared to people used to a normal working week”.
For Mark, the most important benefit is the time you get to spend with family: “I feel extremely lucky that I’m able to be a part of my children’s day at some point and a big part in their growing up. That level of interaction is something that is rarely achieved in other careers.”
Sarah said: “Because I’m used to late nights and early mornings, I found it relatively easy to be up with my daughter in the middle of the night (although that’s a secret!) and a 2am finish after a dinner party wouldn’t faze me at all.”
But some people struggle more than others, and it can take time to adapt. “Shift work can be a bit of a challenge if you aren’t used to it and you haven’t planned for it as it requires a certain degree of organisation. It’s often quite difficult to explain to somebody that has never worked a shift pattern, that whilst they are tucked up in bed or out at a concert, you are working!” said Mark.
Sarah added: “One of the areas I hear a lot of people struggle with is staying asleep for long enough after a night shift to feel refreshed. To ensure I get a proper night’s sleep at home, I try to create the best sleeping environment possible – ear plugs, an eye mask and no sneaky looks at my phone.
“My tip would be that you should prepare for sleep the moment you leave work as if it were just part of a normal bedtime routine. I wear sunglasses on the way home (as long as it’s safe to do so), ask my husband to leave all the curtains closed at home and then I would recommend going through all the normal little things you would do otherwise. For example, if you like a hot drink before bed or to read a book, then do so. Maybe your most comfortable pyjamas and some warm socks – comfort really is king!”
Elaine is yet to start working night shifts, but getting up for the early shift requires a degree of control. She said: “It helps to have a ‘bedtime routine’ that triggers your mind into sleep mode; I always have a mint tea about an hour before I want to go to bed and I never have it any other time so I associate it with falling asleep. I’ve never been able to nap at home during the day but many people I work with do; that’s a skill I may develop when I start doing nights!”
For reasons of safety, it is essential that air traffic controllers are able to perform consistently at the highest level and there are regulations governing air traffic controllers’ working hours.
When controllers are on shift, they can only work for a maximum of 120 minutes before a break. When on a break they are encouraged to do non-work-related activities so their brains have time to rest and recharge.
Mark said: “The hours we can work in an operational position are very heavily regulated and so during my breaks I tend to have a cup of coffee, do some non-work related reading, chat with colleagues, or listen to music.”
Some of the busiest times of day are towards the end of a night shift when flights from North America are arriving in the UK in the early morning, so our Human Performance team work hard to ensure the working environment is set up to minimise fatigue at all times.
Neil May is the Head of Human Performance and the role of his team is to ensure that controllers and engineers are at the top of their game whether it be 3 o’clock in the afternoon or 3 o’clock in the morning.
Neil said: “It is absolutely essential that our operational staff are alert and able to cope with any situation whatever the time of day or night. We design our operations rooms, our equipment and our procedures to maximise alertness and we provide training to all of our staff on how to remain alert. However, getting enough good quality sleep is the absolute key.
“When traffic conditions allow, we encourage our operational staff to spend time sleeping or napping during the night and we provide time and facilities to do this away from the operations room. Something as simple as a 20 minute nap really helps to keep you alert.”
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