Category Archives: Work-Life Balance

Sean Connery and a Coca Cola: Alleviating Fatigue in the Air

Natasha Feiner

In the twentieth century crew fatigue was a major health and safety concern in the aviation industry. Alongside other health issues, such as cardiovascular function and eyesight, crew fatigue was tightly regulated. Flight time limitations, which regulated the hours of work and rest of pilots and cabin crew, existed at both the state and company level. As my PhD research shows, however, flight time limitations did not completely eliminate fatigue in the aviation industry. As such, workers often had to find other ways of managing their fatigue. Based largely on the oral testimonies of ex-pilots and cabin crew, what follows here outlines how crews personally managed fatigue in the air.


Food and Drink

For some people eating a cooked meal on board was important. Others preferred to graze. Joshua* a cabin attendant who worked for BOAC in the 1960s and 1970s used to ‘cross the Atlantic’ on bananas and cheese rolls. For Jane, a cabin attendant who worked for BOAC in the 1970s, Coca Cola was important:

I must have drunk half of the cans of Coca Cola on the aircraft because it was an instant hit of sugar. Any instant hit of sugar that could keep you going. I don’t touch anything like that now, I’m on mineral water or herbal teas, the odd coffee. But at the time Coca Cola.

For others, alcohol played an important part in managing fatigue. Gerry, who worked as a pilot for BOAC throughout the 1970s and 1980s, suggested that alcohol was used as both a stimulant and a sedative:

But I have to say that that night in America when you got there, it was something, you know go and have a few beers, was a way to stay awake, socialise, I mean I know alcohol eventually sends you to sleep, but initially when it’s still a social thing, you know, it kept you going so that’s what people did.



In-flight rest was very important for crews operating long-haul flights. From the 1970s, bunk-rest was mandatory on long-haul flights. Though some crew members found this helpful, others struggled to sleep in bunks. William, who worked as a flight engineer in the 1970s and 1980s said that bunks were not ‘conducive to good sleep’. For pilots and flight engineers, an informal culture of flight deck napping – sometimes referred to as ‘controlled rest’ – was important. Although the safety of this was called into question in 1972 after an entire flight deck crew was found to be asleep at the same time en route from Sydney to Honolulu, from the ex-pilots I have spoken to, it seems that the practice remained widespread regardless.[1] As William noted:

It was quite common. It was approved really, everybody you know captain or first officer would say to the others, ‘can I close my eyes for a minute?’ and he’d [the captain] say yes or no.

A similarly informal napping culture also existed in the cabin. According to Eleanor, who worked as cabin crew for BOAC throughout the 1970s and 1980s, crew would informally allow each other breaks. If there was a spare seat in the cabin, crew would ‘pull a blanket’ over themselves and have a twenty-minute nap. For some, sedatives played an important role in pre- and post-flight sleep. A number of the flight engineers and cabin crew I have interviewed have told me that they used sleeping tablets, often prescribed by personal GPs, during their working lives. While some took Temazepam, others were prescribed Magadon. Though some used sleeping tablets frequently on long-haul trips, others treated their prescription as a ‘back up’, as Eleanor explained:

My doctor gave me some. I explained to him that I rarely, I rarely felt exhausted but would it be a good idea, I was seeing him about something else, would it be a good idea if I had some with me so that if I started to feel it building up with the time changes… he’d known me for a long time, he knew I wouldn’t be silly with them and take them as a matter of course. I made it clear to him I didn’t want to. Just, it was a, it was a sort of back up if you like.



For pilots, socialising with the cabin crew was important. According to ex-pilot Adam, cabin crew played a key role in alleviating the fatigue of flight deck crew. Not only would cabin crew bring pilots meals and coffees, but they intermittently came in to chat. According to Adam this social interaction helped pilots maintain alertness. For some cabin crew, socialising with passengers was the best way of maintaining alertness. For Joshua, when the first signs of fatigue began to show, he would seek out celebrity passengers:

Every aircraft you had a passenger list. Every single person was down there and the important ones were highlighted so if I was feeling really really tired and I didn’t have another hour left in me, I thought I’ll go and bother Sean Connery for a minute.

Reflecting the subjective nature of fatigue, then, different modes of managing fatigue worked for different people.


*Pseudonyms are used throughout.

[1] Arthur Reed, ‘Ministry Inquiry over BOAC crew asleep at controls of jet flying 30,000 ft’, The Times, Dec 13 1972.

The Health of Pilots: Burnout, Fatigue, and Stress in Past and Present

Natasha Feiner

On 24 March 2015 a Germanwings Airbus crashed 100 kilometres northwest of Nice in the French Alps after a constant descent that began one minute after the last routine contact with air traffic control. All 144 passengers and six aircrew members were killed.

The crash, tragic as it was, attracted significant media attention and it was not long before attention turned to co-pilot Andreas Lubitz. German prosecutors said that they found indications that Lubitz had concealed an illness from his employer, hiding a sick note on the day of the crash. Whilst some media coverage looked to Lubitz’s history of depression, others investigated ‘burnout’. Der Spiegel reporter Matthias Gebauer tweeted in March that Lubitz was suffering with ‘burnout-syndrome’ when he took time out of pilot training in 2009.[1]

The term ‘burnout’ was coined by Herbert Freudenberger in 1974 and is still widely used in Germany (and to a lesser extent, the UK and America) today. Symptoms include long-term exhaustion and diminished interest in work, which is often assumed to be the result of chronic occupational stress.

The recent media discussion of burnout among pilots as a result of the Germanwings crash has brought the issue of pilot health into sharp relief. Several countries have implemented new cockpit regulations and there has been significant discussion of how pilots (and the airlines that employ them) should best deal with stress, personal problems, and exhaustion. These issues have their historical antecedent in late-twentieth century discussions of ‘pilot fatigue’.

It is widely acknowledged today that commercial airline pilots are employed in one of the most stressful occupations of the modern age. Before the Second World War this issue was rarely discussed outside academic circles. Traditionally conceived by the public as heroic and superhuman, early pilots were held up as paragons of masculine strength and vigour, able to manage great responsibilities with little (if any) impact on their physical or mental health.

Although fatigue was first recognised as a potential problem in the 1950s, it was not until the 1960s that the relationship between flying, fatigue, and the health of pilots was first discussed in the mainstream media. A number of newspaper articles highlighted the stressful nature of the pilot’s job and (from the early 1970s) a number of alarmist articles reported incidents of pilots falling asleep at their controls. In one report a pilot flying over Japan was said to have “nodded off” and then woken to find the rest of his flight crew asleep:

‘In the report… the BOAC captain said that when he felt himself dozing he shook himself, looked around the flight deck and found his two co-pilots and flight engineer asleep. “I immediately called for black coffee to bring everyone round” [he said]’.[2]

The increased media interest in ‘pilot fatigue’ coincided with a period of industrial strife amongst pilots who were experiencing radical changes not only in the type of aircraft they were asked to fly, but also in terms of management and working conditions. These issues came to the fore in 1961 when airline BEA released their summer flying schedules. The proposed schedules were intensive and many BEA pilots questioned the implications for safety. Long duty periods and inadequate rest breaks would, it was argued, cause dangerous fatigue that may increase the likelihood of accidents.

BEA relented and allowed an investigation of ‘pilot fatigue’. Carried out by physician of aeronautics H. P. Ruffell Smith, the investigation used a system of points for measuring flight time limitations, replacing the traditional hours system. The subsequent report suggested that BEA pilots should not fly more than 18 points per day, and extra points were awarded for especially stressful or fatiguing operations, such as take-off and landing. Ruffell-Smith’s report was never published and BEA did not enforce his recommendations. The problem of ‘pilot fatigue’ was not solved.

In the years that followed a number of high profile air disasters occurred, many of which were later attributed to ‘pilot fatigue’. In 1966 a Britannia plane crashed in Ljubljana, Yugoslavia, killing 98 people. One year later another plane crashed, this time in Stockport, killing 72 people. Then, in 1972 a BEA Trident plane crashed in Staines, killing 118 people. The Trident crash, in particular, caught media attention as the pilot in charge of the plane, Stanley Key, had made ‘numerous complaints’ about the length of the working day prior to his death.[3]

As a result of this, in 1972 pilots’ union BALPA revived its campaign to reduce working hours, shifting their focus to the dangers ‘pilot fatigue’ posed to passengers. By emphasising the potential dangers of fatigue, BALPA was able to convince airlines to carry out a further investigation into flight time limitations and pilot workload. Based on the results of the investigation, in 1975 the Civil Aviation Authority published strict regulations on flight times with the aim of avoiding ‘excessive fatigue’[4].

Whilst the problem of ‘pilot fatigue’ did not come to a neat conclusion in 1975 (BALPA continues to campaign on the issue to this day) the working conditions of pilots were drastically improved by the introduction of strict flight time limitations.[5] Such drastic changes would not, arguably, have taken place without the support of the British media. The alarmist nature of newspaper reports on the subject of ‘pilot fatigue’ forced airlines to take the health of pilots seriously, for fear of further frightening (and consequently losing) customers.

One would hope that the British media could play a similarly positive role today, following the Germanwings tragedy, by encouraging a re-evaluation of mental health policy by airlines (as well as by employers more generally). Although many initial newspaper reports about Lubitz were (sadly) insensitive and stigmatising, several recent articles have used a of discussion the Germanwings crash as a platform for encouraging greater awareness and understanding of mental health.[6] The tragedy may yet engender a re-evaluation of mental health and stress in the workplace, as the Trident crash did for ‘pilot fatigue’ in 1972.


[1] Gebauer is quoted in this news report: [last accessed 23/06/15]

[2] The Times, Dec 13 1972, page 1.

[3] The Times, Nov 29 1972, page 4.

[4] The Avoidance of Excessive Fatigue in Aircrews: Requirements Document, (London, 1975), p. 1.

[5] For more information on BALPA’s current ‘Focus on Fatigue’ campaign see: [last accessed 23/06/15].

[6] Alastair Campbell (‘Time to Change’ ambassador) on the stigma and taboo surrounding mental health: [last accessed 23/06/15].

Work-Life Balance: A Historical Perspective

Frederick Cooper

Over the last three decades, Work-Life Balance has entered comprehensively into the language that men and women in western societies use to frame their experiences of work, family and leisure. For a term with such widespread currency and no immediate medical connotations, it remains steeped in psychiatric anxieties. A clinical acceptance of lifestyle balance as a means of maintaining happiness – and imbalance as a route to illness – has placed serious psychological consequences just below the surface of one of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century’s more pervasive buzz-words.

This is an example of the power that mental health expertise has to shape the behaviour of individuals who might never come into contact with psychiatric services. Across the last century, groups such as overworked and unemployed men whose relationship with work has been interpreted as falling into one particular extreme have been increasingly described as putting themselves at risk of varying types of distress and disorder. As modern critics of work-life balance have argued, drawing on the initiatives of feminist scholars over the last seventy years, the picture for women has usually been far more complicated. In workplaces still dominated by sexist practices, women work harder and longer, returning home to perform unpaid and unrecognised labour which facilitates male leisure at the expense of personal wellbeing.

My research explores the emergence of balance between work and home as a blueprint for women’s psychological health. When British doctors and feminists began to advocate a dual role in the years following the Second World War, many of them envisioned a temporary period of social and psychological dislocation in which women would learn to reconcile their new responsibilities with traditional expectations. A meeting held in 1956 by the Medical Women’s International Association (MWIA) concluded the following:

“The problem [of women’s adaptation to new roles] was part of an evolutionary process which, like all others, was bound to claim its victims. It was the task of medicine to try to minimise any harmful effects of such developments.” – (British Medical Journal, Dec. 1st, 1956).

In 2015, medicine is still attempting to minimise their harmful effects. For the MWIA, the recognition that social change had its own casualties was by no means condemnatory. These debates took place in a context where sociologists and physicians were finding new ways of speaking about the adverse effects of domesticity upon the female psyche. As Jean Mingay put it in a lecture to the Old Girl’s Union of Bradford Grammar School in 1953, “the possible conflicts between philosophy and apron-strings are surely less deadly than the bondage of apron-strings alone.” Many women were rejecting the devil they knew, and they were framing their decisions and experiences in explicitly psychological terms.

The writers in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s who were re-imagining women’s position in society represented their vision as ethical and natural, a common-sense solution requiring the dispelling of the conservative ideologies which had hitherto consigned women to domestic life. The ideas that they set out, however, were the product of a series of intellectual and practical collisions and compromises.

As a number of historians have observed, an intensification of psychological theories about maternal deprivation and child development during the same period leant scientific validity to full-time motherhood. Looking beyond the home for personal fulfilment, according to this framework, deprived the next generation of the attention they needed to form healthy personalities. Feminists such as Viola Klein, making extensive use of medical concerns about the frustration and loneliness of mothers, were able to subvert this narrative. Unhappy housewives, they argued, posed a far greater threat to child health than the women whose additional responsibilities took them away from the family but stabilised or improved their mood.

Similarly, ideas about the effect of working women on men’s mental health began to shift. An approach to marital relationships which located disharmony, neurosis and divorce in the deficit between adolescent expectations and the lived experience of marriage emphasised the potential for psychological emasculation in any challenge to male breadwinning. Pro-employment theorists set out to defuse this anxiety, telling husbands that women who worked made healthier wives with better-rounded personalities.

Although they were able to shift conceptions of ideal female lifestyle away from a sexual division of labour and towards a model which seemed to emulate the male experience, post-war writers were weaving gendered inequalities into the structure of the new orthodoxy. Contesting the association between work and disordered marriage and motherhood, they were unable to overturn the assumption that these were the criteria through which women’s health would be measured and valued. Parallel arguments, conversely, emphasised the benefits of family life for male productivity:

“The husbands who are most successful are those who achieve a personally satisfying balance between home and work. And in achieving this balance managers’ wives are of the very greatest importance.” – (Family Doctor, Housewife Special Issue, 1961).

Female imbalance – or, perhaps, overbalance – has been written directly into male success and fulfilment. This fundamental division has not been profoundly altered by women’s exodus into the workplace over the previous century. Although the current project is still taking shape, drawing focus towards the generative cultural, political and medical tensions which formed and shaped conceptions of balanced lifestyles may be able to aid an understanding of their enduring contradictions.