Six tips from a fighter pilot on how to reduce stress in the workplace 

Author and keynote speaker, Kim Campbell, above and below, shares key learnings from her time in the armed forces 

Before becoming a leadership coach, Kim Campbell spent 24 years as a fighter pilot and senior military leader in the US Air Force. She led more than 1,000 military and civilian personnel both at home and abroad. Over time, she began to realize that many of the lessons she learned in the cockpit had broad applicability to her role as a leader as well.

Kim comments: “Fighter pilot culture is unique, we spend our lives working in a high-stakes environment, where we have to make split-second decisions to survive, and where training missions can be just as dangerous as actual combat. Because of this demanding environment, we have to be able to reduce stress where possible so we can achieve a high-level of performance, while also acknowledging that some level of stress can be a good thing. It’s a balancing act.”

According to the American Institute of Stress, 83% of Americans suffer from work related stress, and one million citizens miss work each day as a result. Ahead of physical illness, it’s still one of the most common reasons US workers call in sick.

To help workers to manage and reduce feelings of stress, Kim has teamed up with HR advice hub, People Managing People, to share some key learnings from her time as a fighter pilot.

  1. Adopt a wingman culture

During a mission, wingmen provide critical mutual support to ensure the flight is safe. They’re responsible for looking out for threats to the formation, either on the ground or in the air. The flight lead is responsible for driving the flight to the target, navigating obstacles and threats, and is primarily forward focused. A wingman is primarily responsible for checking the flight’s six o’clock position, the area directly behind an aircraft where we can’t see on our own.

Wingmen provide critical mutual support and always ‘check six’ for unseen threats. These tasking priorities ensure each element of the formation understands the part they play with clearly defined roles and responsibilities, reducing the workload and taking some of the stress off of the flight lead.

You can cultivate a wingman culture on your team by ensuring that team members understand the role they play on the team and where they fit into the bigger picture. This means communicating to team members how the work they’re doing is critical to shared success and how it contributes to overall goals and objectives.

Leaders should incentivize an environment where teammates look out for one another, provide mutual support when needed, and will cover down when another teammate is feeling overwhelmed. Foster a mentality that lifting others helps elevate the performance of the team.

2. Communicate priorities

It can feel overwhelming dealing with multiple competing priorities. However, if we focus on what’s most important first, then we can lead our team successfully in the face of challenges. “Aviate, navigate, and communicate” is a simple phrase we learn early in pilot training that helps us through demanding situations.

When we face an emergency, we learn to slow down and focus on what’s most important first: maintaining control of the airplane. Then we navigate, gaining situational awareness of what is going on around us and figuring out where we need to go. From there, we communicate, letting others know about the problem and, if required, requesting assistance from our wingmen or other assets.

These concepts work outside of the cockpit as well and I’ve used them to help me lead my team (and my family) when things get busy and I’m feeling overwhelmed.

We must aviate by keeping our team on course and maintaining focus on our critical priorities. There are the things that we have to keep doing, that we can’t stop doing or we will fail. Then we navigate. We need to have awareness of the goals we are trying to achieve, leading a clear path for our team by knowing where there are threats or risks to the team and mission.

3. Be calm in the chaos

Deploying to combat multiple times as a young fighter pilot demonstrated to me the significant role leaders play in keeping their teams calm in chaotic situations. Teams want leaders who are consistent and remain calm and composed, even under stress. Sometimes in all the chaos, our best immediate reaction as a leader is to do nothing. Not every situation requires an immediate reaction. Most of the time we can stop, breathe, and take the time to think about how we will respond.

Communicate what you know and be honest about the situation. Instil confidence. Reassure the team that they are well prepared to endure hard times, even when the outcome remains uncertain. Empathize with team member stress levels and act/adjust accordingly. Consistency creates trust. Our team wants to know they can count on us during tough times. They will be watching to see how we respond.

4. Focus on those things in your control

There are things in life we can control, things we can influence, and things which we can’t control or influence. Don’t waste time or mental energy on the things you can’t control because this generally results in increased stress levels. If we focus first on those things we can control, then we can leave the rest for later (or not spend time on them at all).

5. Make work-life balance a priority

It’s not good enough to just say it’s a priority and then be the first one in and the last one out of the office. If we make the effort to find an overall balance between our personal and professional life, our team will follow our lead.

We know people will perform better at work when their personal lives are taken care of at home, where we ensure our team has time to recharge, and where we encourage people to take care of their families because it’s the right thing to do. Take time off and encourage your team members to do the same. We need to walk the walk and show our team that we can do it too.

6. Learn to recognize and support stressed-out workers

Leaders at all levels have a responsibility to recognize and then support stressed-out or burned-out members on their team. In a fighter squadron, we did this by conducting an operational risk management assessment before each mission we flew. Were we up to the task that day? What external factors were playing a role in our overall well-being? Could we safely accomplish the mission?

Leaders at all levels can make this assessment by having regular check-ins and simply walking around and talking to our team members. What pain points do they have? Where can we help alleviate stress? What resources are available to help them? If necessary and appropriate, encourage burned-out team members to take a down day or time away for self-care.