By Jon Keller
August 31, 1981 12:00 PM

For cops or cabdrivers, bank managers or housewives, stress is the single occupational hazard common to all. This summer striking air traffic controllers focused national attention on the problem of work-related stress and cited the tensions in their own jobs as justification for higher pay and shortened workweeks. Among those most familiar with the controllers’ complaints is Dr. C. David Jenkins, 53, head of behavioral epidemiology at the Boston University School of Medicine. From 1973 to 1978 Jenkins co-directed a $2.3 million study of 416 controllers working at large airports and routing centers in the Northeast. Through confidential interviews and thorough medical testing, he and his colleagues (including a team of 30 researchers) compared job tensions in the control tower with those found in other occupations. In a conversation with PEOPLE’s Jon Keller, he recently discussed his study’s findings and offered some advice for those whose jobs—whatever they may be—have led to a struggle with stress.

How do you measure stress?

One of the misconceptions about stress is that it’s a simple, unidimensional kind of thing like temperature or weight. It’s not that simple. The bottom line for our study was: Do these people get more chronic illnesses, have more accidents? Do they have more periods of anxiety and depression, more severe psychiatric problems? Do they have more alcohol problems?

What was the overall health of the air traffic controllers you surveyed?

The largest single chronic illness was hypertension, which is abnormally high blood pressure. Their rate was two to four times higher than the rate among men of comparable age. General gastrointestinal illness symptoms were definitely higher. Over 50 percent were heavy drinkers. Predominantly this occurred after work.

What contributes to their hypertension?

Even though controllers are sedentary and not doing physical labor, their blood pressure quite often varies wildly within a single day. There’s some clinical feeling that people with highly variable blood pressure experience a higher rate of hypertension, and our studies with the controllers bear this out. There are a lot of bad outcomes from hypertension, not the least of which is higher mortality rates.

What are the principal stresses on air controllers?

One is that the pressure comes and goes during the day, and it’s not always predictable. A surgeon will know that he has a tough few hours ahead and brace himself for it. A controller’s job can be characterized, as one of them said, “by hours of boredom followed by minutes of panic.”

Do erratic hours contribute to stress?

Shift changes are very stressful to the biological clock we all have. They interfere with sleep regularity and, just as a person is adjusting to the new shift, there will be a couple of days when he’s off-balance and won’t be working his best. Crazy shift hours isolate controllers from the mainstream of life so they feel even more out on a limb by themselves.

Are they haunted by the specter of a disaster?

Many said that to be a good controller, you can’t think about that. You have to think you’re just pushing two pieces of tin around in the air. They humorously refer to their job as “pushing tin.”

Is it a young person’s profession?

We had a difficult time getting enough over-40 controllers to participate in our sample because they simply weren’t there. You get very few controllers with more than 12 years’ experience. We saw people in their early 40s trying to get out, get shifted to a data systems job or into aviation services, just to get off the board.

How are their complaints received?

The men tell of complaining about inefficient or dangerous situations and getting no response. “Nobody’s listening to us” is a common theme, and there’s some truth to it.

Doesn’t everyone beef about the boss?

True, but the level of satisfaction with management among controllers is way below average. Their perceived support was the lowest of all skilled occupations. Based on the data we collected, most enlightened management would be quite concerned.

Are controllers a different breed?

They clearly have developed a group spirit and image along with a style of behavior. Part of being a controller is developing this macho style. They dress kind of flashy and they drive fast. There’s a lot of horseplay around the facilities, pretend boxing, internal lingo. But if we look at more basic personality styles and compare these with the national norms for men, we find that controllers do not differ significantly.

How do the pressures on controllers compare with other occupations?

There’s a different quality of stress. For instance, housewives contend with noise, interruption, distraction. The responsibility is great in the long haul, but what you do in any one day isn’t going to have all that great an impact down the line. Tax collectors have the problem of being thoroughly disliked and not getting the community support and praise that more glamorous professions do. As far as time pressures go, those are probably heavier on journalists.

What about jobs that deal with life-and-death situations?

Many people in our society have heavy responsibility. Policemen have some of the same stress as controllers; when they go out on a call, they don’t know if it’s going to be routine or whether their lives will be threatened. There is more personal physical danger to a policeman or a firefighter, yet controllers are involved with a bigger potential loss of life. And their mistakes can’t be reversed.

Don’t some people thrive on stress?

There are theories that there is such a thing as good stress, that people need some stimulation and challenge. I think that’s why people go skiing or skydiving. And studies have shown that even under the most threatening and difficult conditions, some people have it in them to survive and survive well. Some people call it “ego strength”; others call it “adaptive capacity.” On the other hand, even the pleasant effects of energy and stimulation cited by some people are said by others to have negative consequences. If the challenge is to the point of exhaustion, if the exhilaration comes at the expense of other parts of life, then there may be problems.

What advice can you give the over-stressed worker?

A lot of things that are considered stressful are really not that important in the long run. First, discuss what you feel stressed about with a friend or someone who is familiar with your situation. An outsider might lend perspective that you had missed. Then consider whether or not it is all that serious for you to fail at your task or miss a deadline. In many cases after reevaluating a stressful situation, you may realize that the consequences are not that serious.

How about the physical symptoms caused by stress?

I would strongly advise people to exercise rather than eat as a reaction to stress. Not extremely heavy exercise, though. One should jog a mile a day if inexperienced rather than three miles. Even a simple walk around the block can help relieve both mental and physical symptoms. If you can’t run or walk or exercise in some other way, try relaxing completely, turning your mind blank and letting the tension just flow down through your body to the floor while breathing deeply.

Which is more important in causing stress—a person’s attitude or the situation he faces?

It takes two to tango; the external situation and the type of person are both very important factors. There are very few of us who would not be stressed by things such as long hours of overtime at a taxing job or conditions of constant threat such as were experienced by our hostages in Iran. Even low-stress occupations have their stressful moments. Although environments differ as do people in their responses, stress is a real factor that shouldn’t be brushed aside cavalierly.

In health terms, will the striking air controllers be better off now?

The strikers are getting slapped down hard for venting their frustrations. With the sort of negative reinforcement and everything cut out from under them, my guess is that they would experience an increase in a variety of health problems. The specific effects would vary depending on what the individual’s weak link is—his gut, his heart or his mind.