(Photo credit: RNLI/Nigel Millard)

To raise awareness for Stress Awareness Month in April, Mark Machin, a doctoral student at Manchester Metropolitan University, shares a blog about his research around the wellbeing and performance challenges for High Demand Operators brought about by being on-call, and his experience as a crew member on a RNLI lifeboat. 

It’s a little after 2am.  Early Winter and a cold night.  I’m sound asleep, tucked up cosily in bed, and have been for about 3 hours.  My wife will say I’ve been snoring, I can’t imagine that’s true though…  I’m shocked awake by a loud, semi-tuneful, electronic trill, accompanied by an angry vibration on my bedside table.  Not my phone – I keep that downstairs overnight for a break from e-consumption.  But the sound isn’t a surprise.  I know it, and what it’s from.  I know what it means, and what’s required of me.  I am conditioned to react.  But I choose to respond.  Within seconds I’m out of bed, the dump of adrenaline feels like being hit with a sledgehammer.  I’m suddenly conscious of the contrast between the warmth of the duvet cocoon I’ve just left and the sharpness of the winter night’s air I find myself in.  I run down the landing to the top of the stairs.  My clothes laid out over the banister in the order I’ll need to put them on to dress as swiftly as possible.  Down the steps, gripping the rail so I don’t stumble in my waking state.  Shoes on.  Keys and phone grabbed.  Out the front door and to my car.  I’m on the road in under a minute of waking.  It’s a 5 minute drive to my destination.  I lower the window, hoping the chilled air will speed me through the waking process.  I concentrate, being careful not to cause hazards on the road.  I arrive, pulling up the access ramp behind two other cars also racing to the scene.  It’s a 15 second sprint to where we need to get to, enough time to say hi and connect with one another.  These are good people, I like them, and I feel a sense of being part of something special being here with them.  Through a gate already opened, and into the changing room.  It’s bright, compared to the dark of the drive here.  Someone’s already in their gear and is calling out details of the alarm – the first time I know why I’ve been summoned.  I start to get changed, listening to whatever limited detail we know at that stage.  My cold weather layers, followed by my yellow and black drysuit.  The zips on these things are tricky to get moving.  I pull it across my body and yank it tightly closed.  I particularly love the way the boots fit my feet, rugged things with steel toe caps and excellent grip.  I stuff gloves into the large pouch-pocket on my thigh.  Next my lifejacket.  Straps, buckles, clips.  I feel like my fingers can’t work fast enough.  Is my manual dexterity impacted, or is it just that the urgency to act makes it feel like everything is taking too long?  Finally, the comforting weight of it as I tighten it around my body.  A rapid, efficient briefing from the Helm – our operational lead – about what we know so far.  The nature of the requirement.  The conditions.  The roles each of us will perform.  It helps, but we’ll never know exactly what we’ll face until we’re actually there.  We each grab a helmet from the rack, the final piece of armour, readying us for whatever may come, before we race on.  Loud rattling of shutters, a louder motor lowering into the water, even louder shouts to one another, communicating effectively to get our Lifeboat launched.  9 minutes after the alarm I step aboard, and we go to sea… 

I’m proud to be crew on a RNLI lifeboat.  It’s a somewhat strange existence at times, and comes with real challenges, but I love it.  This month is Stress Awareness month, and my PhD is focussed on understanding the wellbeing and performance challenges for High Demand Operators brought about by being on-call.  As it happens, while the stresses faced by this community are nuanced, many of them are a variation of those faced by all of us in one form or another at different times.  I’m using a mixed-methods approach for my research, combining interviews, questionnaires and authoethnographical elements to best understand the experience of these operators, on whom we often rely.  It’s still early in the process for me – I’m on the verge of starting my first primary study, but as a member of this research group I thought I would offer some views based on my experience of life on-call. 

One of the starkest experiences of being on-call is being shocked awake from sleep, but in reality it’s the ensuing sleep deprivation or restriction that will have the greatest effect.  It can have an impact on your energy levels the following day, your mood and patience, how you perceive challenges, the type of food you eat, whether you exercise or not – all things that play into stress and stress management.  You’ll miss a large chunk of sleep if you respond to a lifeboat ‘shout’ overnight, just like you will if you study too late, binge-watch a series on Netflix late into the evening, or get sucked into a social media black hole for a couple of hours while lying in bed.  So, one of the things I’ve introduced in my life is prioritising sleep when I can.  And it helps.  I know there will be nights when I don’t get enough sleep.  I know that the following day I’ll feel worse for it.  I don’t pretend to be perfect with it outside of shouts, but I recognise the cost of sleep debt and so am a lot more deliberate about it.  I feel better for it day to day, and that helps me manage other stresses that any student, parent, partner and worker faces. 

Expectation of the pager going off is known in academia as anticipation or apprehension stress.  To everyone else, it’s called worry.  In real life it can get into your head at times.  That other voice calling for your attention, reminding you that you can’t just chill out.  Knowing that a stressful situation is coming, eventually.  That’s true for so many aspects of ‘normal’ life though – dreading a presentation or lecture you have to give, an ongoing disagreement with someone, anything challenging you know you have coming up.  There are lots of ways in performance psychology to deal with this.  I do two things:   

  1. If I’m worrying about something, it’s because my brain is trying to do its job.  It thinks it’s helping by identifying something it perceives to be a threat.  So I listen, to a point.  I identify what I can do in advance to help me prepare, then I either do it or make a plan to do it at a sensible time.  With that done, I reassure myself that I’m prepared. 
  1. I practise mindfulness.  This has some big advantages.  It relaxes me and quickly brings me down from that sense of high alert.  It brings me back to the present so I am experiencing what’s going on now, not projecting myself into an imagined future that in all likelihood will not look anything like I’m picturing. And with consistent practise, it improves my overall ability to focus, and reduces my reactivity to stress and stressful stimuli, which is vital on a lifeboat, and pretty useful in life in general.  

Being ready to respond and proactively minimising the amount of delay leads to a sense of prolonged alertness.  If I stay on-call I don’t relax, which leads to fatigue.  Lifeboating is physically and mentally demanding.  Fatigue doesn’t help performance, and we’re there when we’re needed most, so performance matters.  Constant alertness can come from a whole host of sources in everyday life.  Too much time spent consuming information, conflicting demands on our attention, conflicting responsibilities, extensive study and research alongside having a life, with all the highs and lows that go with that.  The way I manage it is by carving out time to ‘de-load’.  Regular time off-call.  Time for activities that are restorative or relaxing.  I allow myself to be off duty.  And I feel good about doing it because I know my on-call performance is better as a result.  Don’t underestimate the importance of recovery time.  Working harder for longer just gets you to burnout quicker.  I think it is possible to ‘have it all’, but you’ve got to understand that down time is just as much of a priority as work time.  And if you need to legitimise it or justify it to yourself, just remember that your performance is better as a result of you making time to recover. 

Being on-call impacts my family life.  Sometimes I can’t take my kids out on a sunny afternoon because I need to be able to get to the lifeboat station quickly.  Sometimes I don’t feel like I’m fully present when we’re all hanging out together, or when I’m chatting with my wife, because I’m alert and readying myself for an alarm, despite knowing that it might not come that day.  My kids wear RNLI pin badges on their school uniforms.  My wife uses an RNLI lanyard for her work pass.  Tacit approval for what I do and the sacrifices we make as a family, I like to think.  Pride, I hope.  But that draw away from family isn’t unique to lifeboat crew.  It’s as true for people whose head is filled with their latest research challenge, or how to make sense of whatever statistical analysis is required.  It’s true for workers spending longer and longer hours to make ends meet, and those with multiple caring responsibilities.  I don’t know that I have the perfect answer, but hugs go a long way.  And making sure you deliberately find balance between what you have to do, and what restores you and yours.  I’m better on the boat when I know I’ve given enough time to my family, and I take strength from them when things are getting spicy at sea. 

Of course, being part of a lifeboat crew isn’t all stress.  It’s a wonderful thing, and brings a huge amount to my life.  I get to operate with a group of inspiring, skilled people.  People who choose to go to sea to save lives.  People who will drop everything to help a stranger on a second’s notice.  My crew are funny, caring, motivated people.  I can’t help but feel lifted by being around them.  I’m proud to be among them.  I’m part of that team and feel a part of the wider community we serve – connection and belonging are both key aspects of wellbeing and the lifeboat delivers and delivers on that front.  Being there for people when they’re adrift and scared, reuniting them with loved ones, gives us purpose, which is a critical part of wellbeing.  It’s a physical role, and I always feel better when I’ve been to sea, even the times when I come back a little green around the gills.  And it provides no end of awe-inspiring moments which helps keep me grounded.  Research has shown that volunteering and contribution are big contributors to wellbeing and resilience.  So getting involved with your local lifeboat station or fundraising team is well worth exploring. 

And so I’m typing this while I’m on-call.  My pager is next to me on the desk, next to a cup of tea in a Lifeboat-orange mug with our boat number and lifeboat station name stencilled on the side.  It’s entirely possible that it will take a few attempts to complete this article. I may be interrupted…  Dealing with that uncertainty is challenging at times. It’s stressful, and draining if you don’t proactively manage it. But lots of life is, and there are proven ways to de-stress from many of the challenges we face. Recovery and downtime. Healthy, restorative sleep levels. Physical activity. Community. Purpose. Be as deliberate in your rest and recovery as you are in your research. And ditch the guilt, you’re de-loading to help you perform better overall. 

The RNLI is a phenomenal organisation. I feel proud to be a part of it.  It is staffed almost entirely by volunteers, and is reliant on public donations to continue saving lives at sea.  It cares deeply about the wellbeing of its crew and offers a range of support to help keep us at our best.  It continues to be very supportive of my research, for which I am tremendously grateful.  If you are lucky enough to live by the coast or a major river – check out whether you have a lifeboat station near you.  If you’re inland, find a fundraising team near you.  You’ll get a huge amount from supporting our work.   

Top tips: 

  • Sleep makes a big difference to stress.  Prioritise sleep over media, you’ll feel WAY better. 
  • If you have something you’re worried about coming up, prep what you can, recognise that you’ve prepped, then stop.  Practise mindfulness, you’ll perform better in the moment. 
  • Fatigue and constant alertness will reduce your performance.  Make time for deliberate relaxation and know that it’s helping you do better when it matters. 
  • Seek positive connection, from friends, family and/or community.  And find ways to contribute to your community. 
  • Support the RNLI, in whatever way you can.  It’s a remarkable organisation and one that actively wants you to get involved. 

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1 comment on “Stress Awareness Month

  • 10th April 2024 at 9:14 pm
    Caroline Biddle

    Loved reading this – was like reading a chapter from a very good non fiction book! Hope to see more blogs on here written in this style. All so interesting Mark. Sleep over Netflix any day 🙌🏻


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