I have written about workplace stress and how some occupations are inherently more stressful than others because they involve life-or-death decisions, constant deadlines, fierce competition, exacting standards, or other nerve-fraying factors.
Yesterday I read about one particular job that is experiencing a labor shortage because stress is driving away workers at a time when demand for trained workers is actually increasing. It’s an unusual occupation—drone pilot—but it provides insights into other stressful jobs.
If you have been following the news lately, you know that drone strikes are a key part of our military strategy as the Obama administration tries to avoid entangling the United States in another Middle East ground war. In fact, the number of drone pilots quadrupled between 2008 and 2013, reaching nearly 1,300. The number of sorties per day tripled over the past decade, reaching a peak of 65 not long ago, but this is expected to be reduced to 60 per day by fall of this year because the program is losing pilots faster than it can recruit and train them.
The main reason for the attrition is the stressfulness of the job. This has been known for some time. A 2013 study by the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center found that the electronic health records of drone pilots showed that these pilots’ incidence of health mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress was comparable to the incidence among pilots of manned aircraft who are deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan.
This may seem surprising, partly because there is a popular conception that piloting a drone is very much like playing a video game. Drone pilots have even been known to say this flippantly, but the reality of the job is quite different. First, they are responsible for a very expensive piece of machinery, which they are flying entirely by instrumentation and by viewing an extremely limited video image that is often compared to looking through a soda straw. The pilots get none of the sensory feedback, such as the sound of the motor, buffeting by desert crosswinds, or the impact of touching down on the runway, that an airborne pilot would experience. The difference between a crash landing and a safe touchdown is a matter of one degree of pitch. Operators also have to deal with a two-second delay between manipulating the controls and seeing the drone react.
More important, the work involves life-or-death decisions that evidently are not made any easier by distance; after all, airborne pilots are likewise far enough away to be unable to see the whites of their victims’ eyes. In fact, drone pilots get a much closer view than airborne bomber pilots do. Often they perform many days of surveillance of the target to ensure the presence of the intended adversary and the absence (to the extent possible) of noncombatants. They may also need to survey the carnage left at the scene of a missile strike.
You may think that these workplace stresses are dissipated when drone pilots reach the end of their shift and go home. However, these pilots work alternating day and night shifts, which in itself can be stressful. Moreover, transitioning from the exacting work environment to home life creates other stresses. A drone pilot commented, “The weirdest thing for me—with my background [as a fast-jet pilot]—is the concept of getting up in the morning, driving my kids to school, and killing people. That does take a bit of getting used to. For the young guys or the newer guys, that can be an eye opener.” One officer remarked, “Having our folks make that mental shift every day, driving into the gate and thinking, ‘All right, I’ve got my war face on, and I’m going to the fight,’ and then driving out of the gate and stopping at Walmart to pick up a carton of milk or going to the soccer game on the way home—and the fact that you can’t talk about most of what you do at home—all those stressors together are what is putting pressure on the family, putting pressure on the airman.”
This kind of “transition stress” is not unique to drone pilots and is a little-known factor that contributes to the difficulty of many other high-stress occupations. For example, a relative of mine was working as a ghost writer while dating a medical intern. One day when his girlfriend got off work, she snapped at him, “I’ve been saving lives all day. What have you been doing?”
I have a very rough idea of this kind of stress from my experience serving as a juror in a murder trial for which the death penalty was a possible outcome. When we reached the penalty phase following the conviction, I spent a day in which we were shown gory crime-scene photographs (for the first time during this trial); a night sequestered in a motel, thinking about the decision we would have to make the next day; and a day debating whether the convicted murderer should live or die. (He’s now serving life without parole.) When I came home, my wife and child greeted me as if I were returning from an overnight business trip, and it was a very unsettling experience. They were unable to understand what I had been through. Despite their good intentions, the transition was very difficult.
It must be a great burden to go through something similar every day, and that’s why I can understand how the Air Force is losing drone pilots faster than it can replace them.