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Coping with time changes

by Dr Rob Hunter BALPA Head of Flight Safety

For many people, this Sunday requires preparation. For example, people with young children might find themselves waking up or going to bed at the wrong time as the clocks change. That’s because it’s not easy to reset our body clocks.

We all have a natural internal clock of sorts, our circadian rhythm. It’s what makes us feel tired when it’s time to sleep and wakes us up in the morning, provided we’re on some kind of regular schedule. And that’s the first difficulty for pilots… the regularly changing shift patterns play havoc with our internal body clock.

Those constantly crossing multiple time zones are familiar with the awful feeling when the body clock gets completely mixed up and won’t adjust to the quick change in the patterns of sleep and being awake. The result, of course, is jet lag, caused by the disruption to the circadian rhythm – and for many people it’s a zombie-like state that results in moodiness, irritability, and deep fatigue. You can read more about some of  impacts of this disruption in our previous blog ‘The long-term health effects of fatigue: impacts on mental health’.

Some people are genetically predisposed to cope with the demands of shift work and time zone changes, for others it’s a struggle. But pilots must adapt and find out what management techniques work for them.

In terms of when it is best to sleep when crossing multiple time zones the best practice that we see in some airline rostering departments is that the roster is issued with advice on when it is best to sleep and for how long. These estimates of best times for sleep are produced by a mixture of computer models and sleep experts that may be advising the airline. The recommendations for best sleep opportunity are particularly valuable when pilots are trying to guess what type of duty they may or may not be called for.

Another important tip is that light matters. People benefit from getting plenty of light when you need to be awake, and from making sure it is dark when you need to get to sleep. This can be tricky to achieve in the cockpit but it is possible to control how much lighting you get in the home and when downroute. If you struggle to sleep well outside of your own bed we also have some tips for getting to sleep in a hotel bed here.

It is helpful to keep hydrated on the plane, eat lightly and at sensible times, and avoid resorting to caffeine or other stimulants. Exercise can also help people to keep their body clock ticking nicely and is great for general health too.

So, whether you adapt easily or struggle to get in sync with the new time, spare a thought for the pilots who experience these massive body shocks day in day out.