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James Grayson Explains How Healthcare Can Learn Burnout Prevention Tactics From Air Traffic Control

Healthcare could learn some lessons on preventing burnout from air traffic control, which is a high-stress workspace that has a very low burnout rate, said James Grayson, administrative chief of staff at West Cancer Center.

Healthcare could learn some lessons on preventing burnout from air traffic control, which is a high-stress workspace that has a very low burnout rate, said James Grayson, administrative chief of staff at West Cancer Center.


How can healthcare learn from other high-stress industries on ways to better manage stress and burnout?

I retired from a career with the Federal Aviation Administration, just under 30 years with them, air traffic control. While most people immediately recognize air traffic control as a high-stress workspace, what most people don’t know is that it suffers from very low burnout. I attribute that to a number of things. But a couple of the big ones are:

One, the technical skills assessment and weeding out process, as it were, is incredibly stringent. In other words, once you make the program as an air traffic controller, you’ve achieved a very high bar in terms of your skill level. That’s no different than physicians or other industries.

Where I feel like we have upped our game a little bit, which is maybe surprising coming from a federal agency, is that we did in 2005, for about 2 years, we did a series of exercises and simulations where we took existing air traffic controllers and people off the street, who had done nothing with air traffic control, and we put them in a simulated environment of 2025 to 2030. In that environment, we upped the volume of the traffic to that level and then we conducted a series of experiments—some with the technology available in 2005 and others with the technology available in automation that can support you in 2025 to 2030.

What we found was in both cases, existing controllers were incredibly unhappy. To do the work in the style that they had been doing it, but in the new volume, created an untenable situation. It became unsafe very quickly. They were also incredibly unhappy and stressed with all the extra automation and technology, even though it made the work very simple. Folks off the street, obviously in the old-world environment did not do very well at all and were incredibly unhappy. But in the new-world environment, because we had asked for certain types of personality traits to be represented in the room, we found several that really enjoyed it.

We used that to start to create some biographical testing and I’m proud to say that while it is still a work in progress, as we sit here today in 2018, we are hiring different personalities than we were hiring before because we know they’re going to have to work that 2030 traffic. They’re going to have to work in that environment, and, yes, their technical skills still have to be exceptional, but their personality traits and their emotional intelligence has to match up with it, as well.

I think something like that can work in other industries, including healthcare and specifically including physicians and advanced practice providers. But it’s going to take a large group of people getting together and sitting at the table and figuring out how to do it.

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