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Work life balance week: Fighting fatigue

by Nancy Jackson BALPA Media and Communications Officer

As part of BALPA’s examination of work life balance we have been hearing from pilots about their lives. Tim* has worked for a subsidiary of a national carrier and a low-cost airline. He says constant roster instability and duty changes throughout his career have meant home life sacrifices and fatigue are the norm.

Tim's story

Getting the balance right between work and home life is extremely difficult. In particular, I find getting adequate rest is a real challenge.

I spent 16 years working in IT before my career change into flying. My first flying job involved an overseas base and involved living in a hotel (at the company’s expense) for nearly four years, coming home for my days off, also at the company’s expense. This way of living really affected my home life and limited my time with my family severely. 

In 2006 we decided as a family it was time for a change. I chose to look for a new job to allow me to spend more time with my wife and new born daughter. My new job was close to home. I had a 20 minute drive to work and my work life balance improved. But in 2010, it was all change again when the company closed the base and I was forced to either move to another base (with my commute going up to 1hour 45minutes) or take redundancy. I chose the longer commute.

For four years the decision to change base meant I had to spend quite a bit of time in a hotel, at my expense, to avoid the long drive every day. By 2014 this took its toll and I decided it was time to make a change again. The only way I would be able to manage the unpredictable rosters and have any form of quality family life, was to move nearer to my base airport. We made the move and things have been a lot better. But constant roster instability and duty changes, combined with earlier starts and later finishes continue to have a huge effect on me and my family.

“…the only way to keep going is to make sacrifices in my personal life.”

Being a pilot means being awake at very anti-social times. I find it very difficult to get enough good quality sleep and the only way to keep going is to make sacrifices in my personal life. Increasingly our early flights are getting earlier, meaning I go to bed earlier each evening. I miss out on family events and life in the household can disturb me. My family also make sacrifices for my job. Often my wife will come to bed early at the same time as me just to avoid waking me up. But this then disrupts her quality of life as she obviously wakes at the same time as I do.

I’ve found that late shifts are also getting later, meaning I disturb my wife and child when I get in and they disturb me when they get up. Having a young daughter is wonderful, but the general noise she creates makes quality sleep very hard to achieve. I sometimes sleep in the spare room on late duties but I still hear my wife get up, and after that there is no real quality sleep.

“It has almost become a process of survival…”

It’s a situation many pilots struggle to manage. In general, I just put up with it and accept that during a working week I do not achieve as much sleep as is really required. It has almost become a process of survival until the next block of days off. When not at work for a while I do manage to achieve at least seven to eight hours' sleep, although when on a duty block I rarely get more than six.

There are some positives to my job. I do get more actual days off, although recovery time has to be built in to that. I am on a fixed pattern of work which means that if I need to plan anything myself I have great flexibility, being able to predict my days off until retirements. However, the problem comes when something arises that is outside of my control, and it falls on a working day. I have had to turn down numerous invitations because it is almost certain that I wouldn’t be able to get time off.

“…applying for leave is very challenging.”

Booking leave is also a big issue. It is planned so far ahead that often it is not usable. The company weights the leave for the summer and the system for applying for leave is very challenging. More leave is available in the winter meaning more working time in the summer when the flights are busier, having a double impact on recovery time between duty blocks.

I love being a pilot, but I love my home life too. I fear the life of a pilot can pose real problems for family life. It is important to have a family who will support you and who are willing to make sacrifices with you. I believe that companies trying to squeeze more out of their workforce could mean we see more and more disparity between home life and work life.

*Name has been chan ged to protect identity