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How Do We Help Drone Operators Facing Burnout?

10/20/2014 12:52 EDT | Updated 12/20/2014 05:59 EST

With the launch of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) and Iraqi Freedom (OIF), drones have become a vital part of the U.S. military's operations in different parts of the world. Controlled either by onboard computers or remote operated by operators on the ground, drones can provide reconnaissance, surveillance, or even attack targets on the ground during high-risk missions. As military operations expand around the world, the need for drone operators has become more critical than ever.

But what are the psychological costs of operating drones? The increasing need for drone missions as they continue to be a vital part of U.S. military operations has placed greater strain on ground-based operators. Along with a significant increase in total hours spent operating drones, the need for round-the-clock shifts, and the virtual exposure to the combat experienced by personnel on the ground.

Along with the drone pilots, that can include the sensor operators, support crews, and mission specialists who are also involved in ensuring mission success. Drone crews also have a strange dual role since they spend immersed in the drone operation while juggling the daily responsibilities of normal life. Much like police officers, firefighters, and paramedics, managing this kind of dual existence can take its toll over time. All of which can increase the likelihood of occupational burnout.

A common problem for many people working in high-risk professions, occupational burnout usually involves chronic exhaustion, feeling "drained", displaying cynical emotions, as well as losing confidence in the ability to do the work. Previous research looking at USAF Predator/Reaper drone operators showed that they were particularly vulnerable to burnout due to long work hours (fifty hours a week on a six-day work week schedule), rotating shift work (often being called on to work twelve-hour shifts, four times a week), inefficiencies in computer design, and problems dealing with the in-garrison lifestyle. An estimated fourteen to twenty-six percent of drone operators showed signs of acute exhaustion as well as high levels of cynicism and fatigue. It still isn't clear however how this compares to troops who are either actively deployed or who have just returned from the battlefield.

The problem of fatigue in drone operators raises concerns about increased risk of mission failure and mishaps. It also increases the likelihood of drone operators developing medical problems that can render them unfit for duty. Predator/Reaper missions are carried out by branches of the U.S. Air Force including the Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Agency (AFISRA) as well as separate USAF major commands such as Air Combat Command (ACC), Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC), and the Air National Guard (ANG). There can be significant differences in the level of stress reported by drone operators depending on the nature of the missions being conducted, dealing with occupational burnout has led to calls for improved strategies for helping operators cope.

Unfortunately, the increasing need for drone missions and the shortage of trained operators has put limits on what can be done to help reduce stress. Operators also have to deal with uncertainty about promotion, the special problems linked to difference geographical locations, and the different operating procedures for each agency using drones. Understanding how widespread the problem of burnout is in drone operators could help prevent more serious problems later on.

A new research study published in the journal Military Psychology examines occupational burnout in drone operators across different USAF divisions. The research project requested by AFISRA command to learn more about what factors are linked to burnout and how to protect drone operators. Conducted by a team of researchers led by Wayne Chappelle and Ken McDonald of the U.S. Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, the study looked at 1.094 Predator/Reaper Drone operators across eighteen different squadrons based in the continental United States. Almost ninety percent of the operators were male and the majority were married, under the age of thirty, and often reported working fifty hours a week or more.

Because of the difficulties involved in traveling to the different bases where the operators were located, the study used a web-based version of the Maslach Burnout Inventory-General Survey (MBI-GS) as well as collecting demographic information. The MBI-GS is designed to measure different dimensions of burnout including exhaustion, cynicism, and professional effectiveness. Results showed that fourteen to thirty-three percent of all drone operators reported extreme exhaustion. Not surprisingly, working fifty hours a week or more, coping with swing shifts, and serving tours of duty of two years or more at a time all contributed to the exhaustion seen in drone operators. Drone pilots, especially officers, are especially prone to exhaustion considering the limited number of pilots needed for missions. Similar findings were reported for level of cynicism among drone operators.

Despite the high rates of exhaustion and cynicism in drone operators, only a very small percentage of drone operators met the formal criteria for occupational burnout or viewed themselves as being ineffective at their jobs. Though burnout doesn't appear to be a significant concern at this time, the exhausting schedules that drone operators need to follow are definitely cause for concern due to the increased risk of mishaps during drone missions. In their study, Wayne Chappelle and his team make various recommendations to help relieve the grueling work schedules faced by drone operators and improve morale. This includes improved work conditions and including psychologists in the line units to help catch psychological problems before they arise. Still, given the growing demand for drone missions and the limited number of trained drone operators, how likely these recommendations are to be followed is debatable.

The problem of burnout in drone operators is hardly limited to the U.S. military since drone operations are being used in military conflicts around the world. For many operations in fact, they have become, in the words of former CIA director Leo Panetta, "the only game in town." All of which likely means that the drone operators themselves will continue to be strained to the very limits of human endurance.

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