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Fatigue Among Pilots Essay

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Updated: Jul 20th, 2021


Fatigue is a common medical condition reported in virtually all workplaces. It may arise due to irregular job hours and protracted working durations (Caldwell et al., 2009). Fatigue is better managed by taking a siesta. For persons in delicate occupations such as pilots, nuclear reactor operators, and doctors, this condition can cause devastating impacts. The demand for pilots to fly for many hours without resting contributes to them suffering from fatigue. Drowsiness and exhaustion accompany the fatigue. Medics associate fatigue with the disruption of the circadian rhythm, which contributes to people suffering from irregular sleep patterns (Sallinen et al., 2017).

However, it is imperative to note that one does not need to work for many hours to feel exhausted. Fatigue may arise acutely within few hours or after a considerable mental or physical activity. This essay presents sleep patterns, circadian rhythms, and jet lag as major elements that once distracted contribute to fatigue in the aviation sector and other workplaces. It will culminate by discussing the impacts of acute and chronic fatigue, including mechanisms for dealing with this medical condition.

Sleep Patterns

People have varied sleep patterns, which depend on one’s age, occupation, and degree of exhaustion. According to studies by Zaslona, O’Keeffe, Signal, and Gander (2018) and Chaput (2014), the lack of adequate sleep affects individuals’ cognition, disposition, and motor tasks. Before the onset of sleep research, many people regarded slumber as a condition whereby one’s brain becomes dormant (Musiek, Xiong, & Holtzman, 2015).

Nevertheless, a breakthrough that enabled scientists to monitor and record brain actions when people were asleep refuted this theory (Radstaak, Geurts, Beckers, Brosschot, & Kompier, 2014). Recorded data confirms that a person’s brain often remains active even when one is asleep (Wang & Chuang, 2014). Further studies led to scientists classifying sleep into two main categories, namely, rapid-eye-movement (REM) and non-rapid-eye-movement (NREM) (Wang & Chuang, 2014).

As these names suggest, eye movements, alpha rhythm, and high-frequency waves characterize the REM (Howell & Schenck, 2015). Many sleep experts associate rapid eye movement with dreams (Howell & Schenck, 2015). In most cases, individuals who wake up from REM sleep claim to have been dreaming (Howell & Schenck, 2015). Some people allege that they had clear dreams while others claim to experience strange thoughts.

REM is vital, especially if one has engaged in tough physical or mental activities. According to Howell and Schenck (2015), REM is helpful in organizing and reinforcing people’s memory. One should appreciate that a person’s brain remains active during REM. People’s bodies alternate between REM and deep sleep. This pattern is observed between four and five times when one is sleeping. According to research by Naismith et al. (2014), a person’s legs and arms muscles may appear paralyzed for a short period during REM, a situation that prevents them from executing their dreams.

NREM sleep is divided into three primary phases, namely, N1, N2, and N3 (Maestri et al., 2015). As one moves from N1 to N3, their brain waves diminish and become more harmonized. Additionally, an individual’s eyes stay motionless. Phase N3 is regarded as the highest stage of NREM (Maestri et al., 2015). Spindles and large but slow waves characterize this phase. NREM sleep is critical because it facilitates the repair of damaged tissues.

Circadian Rhythm

Circadian rhythm is a 24-hour inborn clock that influences essential body functions. It contributes to a person feeling sleepy or energetic at particular times. According to Videnovic, Lazar, Barker, and Overeem (2014), circadian rhythms influence individuals’ sleep-wake sequences and body temperatures. For pilots, such rhythmic patterns are distracted due to frequent changes in time zones and hence their high probability of suffering from fatigue. This category of employees may end up not sleeping for long hours, especially when time zones in their destinations do not match with the period when people are expected to be asleep.

The majority of the adults, including pilots, feel drained at midnight due to this lack of sleep. These periods can differ based on one’s timing of physical activities (Davies et al., 2014). Moreover, it is difficult for individuals to experience variations in circadian rhythms when they are asleep.

Sleep-deprived people experience lows and highs of their circadian rhythms (Stokes & Kite, 2017). They experience immense swings of watchfulness and lethargy. Hypothalamus manages the circadian rhythm. Furthermore, external factors such as the existence of darkness may also affect this pattern. At night, eyes alert the hypothalamus, especially when one is feeling exhausted (LeGates, Fernandez, & Hattar, 2014).

In response, the brain signals the body to discharge melatonin, which leads to an individual feeling tired. This situation explains the reason a person’s circadian rhythm appears to overlap with the cycle of day and night. It also explicates why individuals such as pilots who work at night are unable to sleep during the day and remain active at night.

Causes of Sleep Disruption

Sleep disruption can arise from both internal and external factors. According to Caldwell et al. (2009), jet lag in the aviation industry is considered a major cause of sleep disruption. Wickens, Hutchins, Laux, and Sebok (2015) define jet lag as a physiological condition that arises due to changes in one’s circadian rhythm caused by traveling long distances. In most cases, pilots travel across different time zones without stopping. This situation results in excessive tiredness. Negative feelings attributed to flying for many hours result from the extended duration that pilots spend in the cabin. Other factors that cause jet lag include cabin hypoxia, dry air, and the limited selection of meals. Caldwell and Caldwell (2016) allege that pilots who fly East-West have a high likelihood of experiencing jet lag because of environmental changes.

They are required to synchronize their body clock with the local time or adjust to new lifestyles. Sunrise and sunset periods influence a person’s circadian rhythm (Dickerman et al., 2016). Therefore, traveling to a different time zone affects a person’s circadian rhythm and, consequently, their sleep patterns, hence resulting in fatigue. Pilots do not get adequate time to adjust to any new environments because they travel based on predetermined schedules (Lee & Kim, 2018). Although journeying from north to south does not entail changing time zones, individuals may still suffer from jet lag due to the exhaustion attributed to being airborne for many hours.

Changes in working schedules may affect a person’s sleeping patterns. According to a study by Sagherian and Brown (2016), changing from day to night shifts alters a person’s circadian rhythm. Many individuals who work at night, regardless of their occupations, claim to suffer from sleep disruptions (Chen, Daraiseh, Davis, & Pan, 2014). Working at night results in disparities between the environmental synchronizers and endogenous circadian systems. Those who work at night do not get sufficient sleep during the day. Researchers are yet to come up with a clear correlation between night shift and insomnia.

As Chen, Davis, Daraiseh, Pan, and Davis (2014) argue, studies are underway to determine the link between shift work and job turnover. The major challenge is the inability of scholars to monitor a massive group of employees for a long time and to interview those who resign. Potter et al. (2016) maintain that some researchers have applied retrospective methods to analyze the connection between night shift and sleep disturbances.

Stress is another factor that is attributed to sleep disruptions. Studies show that individuals who suffer from stress do not get sufficient sleep (Walter, Nixon, Davey, Downie, & Horne, 2015). Moreover, they experience challenges in the third and fourth phases of sleep (Potter et al., 2016). Sleep experts reveal a correlation between stress and insomnia (Walter et al., 2015). Individuals suffering from long-term stress exhibit symptoms associated with restlessness.

Increased stress interferes with the degree of cortisol in the body, which interrupts a person’s sleeping patterns. According to Boakye et al. (2016), stress keeps people’s brains active because they think about how to handle issues that are causing anxiety. In return, it becomes hard for them to get adequate sleep since their mind becomes preoccupied with looking for answers.

Indifferences amid family members or friends and the lack of support can result in sleep disruptions. Research by Oda and Shirakawa (2014) confirms that individuals who relate well to their friends or relatives get adequate sleep. Hence, social support is paramount to a person’s sleep. Numerous factors are associated with sleep disruptions. Nevertheless, the ones outlined above are prevalent among pilots and other employees.

Effects of Acute and Chronic Fatigue

Fatigue can be classified as either chronic or acute. A survey conducted on 451 manufacturing workers found that fatigue impaired their ability to discharge duties (Lu, Magahed, Sesek, & Cavuoto, 2017). About 57.9% of these participants claimed that they were unable to work efficiently whenever they felt tired (Lu et al., 2017). The difference between acute and chronic fatigue lies in their signs and seriousness. Chronic fatigue cannot be cured through sleeping or taking a break from work (Naviaux et al., 2016). Effects of chronic fatigue include mood swings, insomnia, joints, and muscle ache, and the lack of attentiveness. This condition can be managed through cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), changing routines, and graded exercise therapy (GET).

Acute fatigue occurs within a short period. It arises when one is involved in brief physically or mentally challenging activities or restless nights. Acute fatigue may lead to serious health problems among workers. Taking a break away from work and having adequate sleep can help to cure acute fatigue. Employees such as pilots who serve in companies that require them to work for extended hours are at a high risk of suffering from acute fatigue.

A study carried out to determine how pilots cope with fatigue reveals how they preserve sufficient energy before flying (O’Hagan, Issartel, Nevill, & Warrington, 2016). Other pilots rest before flying to energize themselves (Hartzler, 2014). According to research conducted on pilots who ply the trans-Pacific route, sleeping for 40 minutes before a flight enhances their alertness (van Drongelen, Boot, Hlobil, Smid, & van der Beek, 2017). It also boosts their performance. Consequently, organizations should make sure that their working schedules provide adequate sleeping hours for employees to guarantee that they do not suffer from fatigue.


Inadequate sleep affects one’s productivity, motor tasks, and cognitive levels. There are two categories of sleep, which are REM and NREM. REM helps in memory reorganization while NREM is important for the repair of injured tissues. The circadian rhythm controls a person’s sleep pattern. It is helpful in maintaining body functions. Stress, jet lag, the lack of social support, and shift works are some of the factors that contribute to sleep disruptions. The difference between acute and chronic fatigue is based on its symptoms and severity. While having adequate sleep and rest can heal acute fatigue, one has to undergo therapy to recover from chronic fatigue.


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