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FLYING WITHOUT WINGS: Blog 3 - Are you ok?

Posted 1 August 2020 · Add Comment

Currently grounded, First Officer Tom Peaford, asks is it ok to not be ok? Why airlines must do more, now more than ever, to support the well-being of their pilots.

Image: Shutterstock

“This is the new normal.”- how many times have we heard this phrase? Recently, there has been more change than any of us were expecting or even could imagine was possible.

Unfortunately, much of this change has given us steadily increasing levels of uncertainty which has been predominantly negative. Some have lost loved ones, many are experiencing economic pressures and financial stress, and all of us live more restricted lives with a future that is less clear than it was just a short while ago. It is not easy to describe this situation or know how to handle it and the ‘not knowing’ is a major trigger for anxiety, depression and fear. Thousands of pilots are feeling the pressures of recent job losses through no fault of their own so it is no surprise that stress-levels are high. Psychologists will even argue that the fear of losing a job brings about higher anxiety and stress compared to actually losing a job and with the aviation industry currently experiencing its biggest crisis, there are not many whose mental health is not affected.

Undoubtedly, there will be flight crew that have contracted the COVID-19 infection, thus leaving them unable to work in the short-term. As of yet, there is no research to determine the clinical and psychological long-term effects of this disease, therefore certain individuals may be rendered unfit for duty in the future.

This is not the first time some of us have faced difficult times. Many of the experienced pilots out there today have worked through other crises such as the Gulf War, 9/11 attacks, global financial crisis and the volcanic eruption of Eyjafjallajokull in Iceland, to name a few. LinkedIn has recently been flooded with positive messages from pilots who have seen it all before and are preparing to bounce back again. Resilience has become a key trait for pilots. But times are hard now - probably more than they ever have been- and rather than believing resilience on its own will pull us through, pilots need to be responsible and seek help if needed.

However, pilots are notoriously bad at opening up. It is traditionally a profession that attracts the more technical-minded, with people who would rather handle machinery than talk about their emotions - so it is not always easy to get us to express how we are feeling. In addition to this, many are worried about the confidentiality of the information we share- especially because talking about the way we feel could easily jeopardise our career and future prospects. Until now, the only form of mental health screening we have is in our annual medical examination - a ‘box-ticking’ exercise as to whether we are feeling anxious or depressed or are even having suicidal thoughts.

As we all know, mental health has, until very recently, been somewhat of a taboo subject, especially amongst pilots. It was not until the unimaginable case of Andrea Lubitz and the fate of Germanwings flight 9525 that the world of aviation began to discuss such a topic and how to address the stigma.

The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) has recently developed the ‘Peer Support Programme’ (PSP) with the aim of embedding a confidential psychological assessment into the management system and culture of its airlines. The legislation requires European airlines to implement a PSP by August 2020 – however this deadline has now been pushed back now until February 2021, due to the COVID-19 crisis.

Furthermore, many airlines worldwide are lagging behind with their efforts to set up such programmes, leaving crew ill-equipped to deal with mental health issues. Additionally, experts are still trying to break the stigma surrounding mental health in aviation, particularly in a global industry where there are a plethora of cultural differences.

Broadly speaking, mental health is a blanket term for a person's emotional, psychological and social well-being. The words ‘mental health' themselves seem to be a barrier. If you compare it to ‘physical health', it becomes a lot clearer. The human brain is a muscle; we know it needs help to get stronger but it also needs to be rested. Yet the focus on our mental health is minimised by the majority of airlines and Aviation Medical Examiners (AME) who conduct our regular medicals. In a routine medical, there is no follow-up by a psychologist or psychiatrist unless the pilot requests, which is rarely the case. However, if our blood pressure or cholesterol level is beyond the acceptable scale, then action and a follow up examination would be necessary to pass the medical exam and be deemed ‘fit to fly’.

Such physiological exams are, of course, not self-assessed; if they were then would we each tell the truth about our weight or perhaps our vision if it meant facing repercussions? Potentially not, yet we are expected to honestly report on our mental health. The question that we need the answer for is, ‘How do we build an organisation where there is the awareness and knowledge to identify and handle cases of pilots suffering with mental health?’

Life events and psychological stressors can affect anyone. Pilots are not immune to mental ill-health that affects the general population but it is perceived as a weakness to discuss it. It is essential that pilots have an easily accessible route for seeking assistance when under pressure or when symptoms of ill-health first present themselves, so that they can be supported or referred for treatment without fear of reprisal. A known and trusted pilot peer-support system will benefit both the individual by maintaining a fulfilling career and the organisation by supporting a safe operation.

Centre for Aviation Psychology director Aedrian Bekker, says that "Normalising the issue, to ensure pilots feel able to seek and obtain support, remains one of the most difficult obstacles. This is not a witch-hunt for suicidal pilots. Carriers and regulators have an interest in ensuring that crews are not suffering from distractions from the ‘common troubles’ of life, which might result in accidental – but potentially hazardous – slips during flight operations.”

Mental health is an important part of overall health and well-being, especially for those working in a safety-critical role. It affects how we think, how we feel, and how we act. It may also affect how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices during an emergency so it is important that the airlines recognise the importance of this and find a way to build the trust of their pilots to feel able to say from time to time that they are perhaps not ok. Because after all, it is ok to not be ok.

 

***Footnote*** Whilst writing this blog, I came across something called Talk Club (wetalkclub.com). Although predominately aimed at men, its founder, Steve Yates, discusses his way of making people talk about their mental health. Rather than just asking, ‘How are you?’, he will ask, ‘How are you out of 10?’. He believes this tactic enables someone to reveal their own mental state without actually having to open up immediately. It gives a good indication as to how exactly that person may be feeling within themselves and offers an opportunity to address any issues. If someone is feeling 5 out of 10, what do they need to do to increase that number? What are their trigger points? Perhaps it is as straightforward as simply doing exercise or catching up with a friend for coffee. So, as you are reading this, ask yourself… How are you feeling out of 10?
 

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