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Improve well-being like international air traffic control

There’s an unseen global community under intense pressure, day and night, to keep our skies safe. They’re air traffic controllers. And with almost 40 million flights each year – that’s 8 million people travelling every day – the stakes don’t get any higher.

Air traffic control is at the vanguard of health and well-being management. In fact, few industries put such a strong emphasis on fatigue management and the long-term well-being and mental health of their staff, rivalling the attention usually given to safety alone.

This is where Matt Riley, who spent 19 years at NATS (UK air traffic control) and four years with Dubai Air Navigation Services, learned the secret to engaging people on health and well-being strategy. On Matt’s watch, Dubai International overtook Heathrow as the world’s busiest international airport, handling over 77 million passengers every year – mostly at night.

With air traffic controllers, engineers, meteorologists, plus all the usual administrative departments competing for resources (compounded by language and cultural differences), the scope for tribal mindsets should be familiar to anyone in a large organisation:

“It’s not unusual to find groups of people not talking to one another as well as they could. What people need is a coherent vision for an organisation, where it’s going and so forth.

“First, I’d involve top people from each department, get them in a room describing the perfect environment. Forget where you are now and what part of the business you’re responsible for – what does the future look like?

“I’m not a big believer in mission statements. What you need is ten or so things you’re going to do, with real targets.”

“Then for each of those targets you set up teams whose job it is to define what ‘good’ looks like. But those teams aren’t necessarily made up of people from the departments responsible for reaching those targets. You mix them together.

“The big thing here isn’t about solving problems, it’s getting people talking and breaking down barriers. Suddenly you’ve got ‘this person’ from one part of the organisation picking up the phone to speak ‘that person’ if there’s a problem, because they’ve met each other. When in the past they might have sent an email to a stranger – the equivalent of a cold call, which usually isn’t very successful. Or worse – they might choose not to do anything about it.

“We never asked these teams how to hit those targets – like reducing runway incursions to zero or reducing our cost base by ten percent. We didn’t want solutions yet. We just asked them to describe an organisation that does things in the ideal way, in lots of different categories. Then for comparison we asked them to score our organisation and where we were.

“It’s a big piece of work, and it takes a lot of time and effort. So next you’ve got to ask people if they want to stay on and join another team who actually come up with plans and put things into action.

“Every quarter, management – the people who decided what the original goals were – have to report back and convince people that things have moved on, compared to where they scored it at. So it’s not the boss deciding that things are getting better, it’s a cross-section of people in the organisation.”

Matthew argues that although efficiency, cost-saving and all the other usual commercial objectives might be your goals, the act of empowering people in the process of defining them, and deciding how to reach them, improves culture.

People become motivated and invested in the business. That in itself is the bedrock of improving everything else, health and well-being included.

“What we found was job satisfaction went up, employee opinion surveys told us that. People were happier at work than they had ever been before. And there’s demonstrable evidence of the link between happiness at work and general well-being.

“You also get this interesting situation where staff aren’t in a position to tell bosses what they want to hear. And you don’t waste time making useless commitments that don’t mean anything or don’t have any lasting effect on your organisation.”

With that bedrock in place, your ongoing task is to focus on people’s day-to-day attitudes in work, something Matthew is keen to do as a consultant for Tribe:

“We also ran courses to challenge attitudes to failure, because human beings are inherently designed to fail. If you don’t accept that you have a problem, because at some point mistakes will happen. If you do accept failure in yourself and others, you’re more open to challenging things, and being challenged yourself if you think they’re not right or could be done better.”

“A lot of organisations think they’re being safe when they’re actually being prescriptive. You’ve got to trust people. If you make people aware of human fallibilities, give them clear accountability, then give them the freedom and information to act – in my experience you’ll find that they do the right thing. You’ll achieve more too, with far wider reaching results than you would by being overly prescriptive.”

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