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Tips on Coping with Operational Stress
Drone pilots and sensor operators are a growing and essential community of warriors in today’s force. As an operator of a remotely piloted aircraft (RPA), teammates on the ground rely on you to provide critical coverage and protection. Drone pilots and sensor operators experience a unique set of challenges as they provide combat support on the home front. Many are frequently exposed to images of extreme events while at work. This fact, combined with long work hours, frequent shift changes, and the expectation that warriors can turn on and off their combat mindset around their work schedule, contributes to more than 40 percent of drone pilots and sensor operators reporting high levels of stress. 1
This article provides useful tips on recognizing the signs of stress and resources and tools to help stateside RPA operators cope with stress and strengthen resilience.
Signs of Stress as a Result of Manning RPAs
Operating a RPA can be psychologically and emotionally demanding. Long hours, schedule changes, low staffing, shift work and balancing mission duties and responsibilities at home can result in high levels of stress.3 Common signs of stress among drone and sensor operators include:1,4,5
- Difficulty concentrating
- Negative outlook
- Feelings of guilt
Individuals respond differently to operational stress and display varying signs of stress. Symptoms such as a change in behavior may appear immediately after a stressful event or develop gradually. Learn more about the signs of operational and combat stress in the Real Warriors Campaign article, “Combat Stress: A Natural Result of Heavy Mental and Emotional Work.”
Whether you are leading warriors stateside or overseas, it is important to understand how warriors can maintain resilience. Learn tips on how to identify warriors, including drone and sensor operators, who may be in distress and how to help them maintain mission readiness by reading the Real Warriors Campaign article, “Tools for Line Leaders Managing Personnel in Distress.”
Tips and Resources to Help You Cope
If you think you might be experiencing operational stress as a result of your duties as a drone or sensor operator, use the following resources to help you cope:
- Reach out to your commanding officer (CO) via your chain of command or medical department for support. Someone from your chain of command or medical department is available to listen to any concerns that you may have and help identify psychological health resources available to you at your installation.
- Talk to other drone pilots or sensor operators. Sharing your experiences with a trusted peer who can relate to your experiences can help you cope with stress.
- Complete a confidential, psychological health self-assessment to help you understand symptoms that may result from operational stress and identify psychological health resources.
- Understand your ability to cope with stress by taking a confidential self-assessment of your resilience skills and find resources to help you reinforce your resilience.
- Monitor your psychological health using the T2 MoodTracker mobile app to understand how stress is affecting you. Track your mood throughout a period of time or consider sharing the results with your health care providers.
- Contact the DCoE Outreach Center to identify psychological health resources in your community. Speak with the Outreach Center’s trained health resource consultants, available 24/7, by calling 866-966-1020 or log on to the Real Warriors Campaign live chat.
After long shifts, drone and sensor operators are often fatigued – presenting concerns for warriors operating their vehicles while driving home after work. The Air Force Virtual Wingman is a mobile site that uses a smartphone’s GPS to find local taxi information to help keep service members safe. It also connects them with other safety information and support on the go. Access the Virtual Wingman by visiting www.airforcevirtualwingman.com or view a video overview of the app.
Reaching Out is Sign of Strength
The work of a drone pilot or sensor operator can be demanding and experiencing stress in these jobs is common. It’s important to learn how to cope with stress successfully, strengthen your resilience and utilize care and support resources in your community so that you can perform at your peak on and off the job.
- Combat and Operational Stress (Marine Corps)
- Comprehensive Airman Fitness (Air Force)
- Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness (Army)
- Dealing with Combat and Operational Stress
- Navy Center for Combat and Operational Stress Control (Navy)
1 Zucchino, David. “Troops Who ‘Telecommute to the War Zone’ Feel Its Effects,” The Seattle Times. Published March 20, 2012.
2 Bumiller, Elizabeth. “Air Force Drone Operators Report High Levels of Stress,” The New York Times. Published Dec. 18, 2011.
3 Col. John Forbes. “RPA/Intel Stressors,” U.S. Air Force. Published Nov. 3, 2011.
4 Ouma, Joseph A., Chappelle, Wayne L, and Salinas, Amber. “Facets Of Occupational Burnout Among U.S. Air Force Active Duty and National Guard/Reserve MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper Operators,” [PDF 344.75KB] Air Force Research Laboratory. Published June 2011.
5 Fisher Jr., Charles R.. Col. H.J. Ortega Jr., and Col. David Stanczyk. “Telewarfare and Military Medicine: White Paper/State of the Art Report on AFMS Support to the Emerging Paradigm of Employed-in-Place Operations,” [PDF 566.12KB] Air Force Medical Support Agency. Published Sept. 30, 2011.