PAUL HARRIS, NICK CARPENTER and DAVID MORIARTY from the Royal Aeronautical Society Standing Group for Human Factors in Flight Operations and Training look at the issues surrounding pilot mental health.
In recent years most discussions about pilot mental health are framed within the context of the 2015 Germanwings tragedy. Whilst this event brought certain issues regarding pilot mental health into the spotlight, paradoxically it overshadowed a broader concern which is more relevant to the aviation community.
Captain Richard de Crespigny, the Australian pilot in command who saved the lives of 469 Qantas passengers on flight QF32 on November 4 2010 after its engine exploded mid-flight (Richard de Crespigny).
In 2010, a Qantas Airbus A380 experienced an uncontained engine failure. Captain Richard de Crespigny, together with his crew, successfully handled this emergency. The real act of heroism was to come later when he spoke with candour about the psychological aftermath. He spoke about his experience of post-traumatic stress, his insight that this would affect his ability to conduct his duties, his decision to ground himself and his active pursuit of the right type of assistance that would help him get back into the cockpit.
Although it is understandable that catastrophic emergencies at work will have a psychological aftermath, other less calamitous incidents may also trigger a reaction. Moreover, it is normal, fairly common life events such as relationship difficulties, divorce and, especially, bereavement, that have clearly been shown to have a significant impact on mental health. For example, symptoms such as decreased cognitive ability and impaired decision-making are strongly associated with bereavement. With this in mind, we feel that the discussion should not only be confined to the very small number of pilots suffering from a spontaneous and significant mental illness. Rather, we must broaden the frame to also include a much larger community of pilots who will, at some point in their working lives, experience a transient decrease in their mental fitness most likely as a reaction to one or more external events.
It is also important to emphasise that, in these circumstances, a full recovery from a transient decrease in normal fitness is highly probable. Central to such recovery is early identification of an issue, a safe and non-punitive space for disclosure and discussion, and facilitated help from trusted individuals. In this article we review new guidance published by the British Psychological Society and suggest a number of practical strategies that may be useful to both the pilot community and the wider industry in helping to manage psychological health.
Pilot mental health
When pilot mental health is significantly impaired, the consequences can be devastating. As a reaction to the Germanwings crash, the response from the regulators was to increase the robustness and frequency of psychological assessments. One understandable reaction from the public post-Germanwings was that the industry should simply 'screen out the risk' and ground any pilot showing any hint of psychological difficulty. This is a naïve view for a number of reasons. Psychological conditions are more difficult to measure than physical ones and can often be transient, appearing and disappearing without trace. Furthermore, it can be the case that pilots will do everything they can to conceal any mental health issues for any number of reasons, not least the perceived risk of losing their flying privileges and, therefore, their livelihood.
While pilots are selected and trained partly on the basis of how they respond to work related stressors, outside of work, pilots are subject to the same range of life events as everyone else and will experience the same psychological consequences. These can be compounded by frequent absences from home, making it more challenging to maintain interpersonal and marital relationships. Therefore, we must ask ourselves the following:
a. What can a pilot do to better prepare themselves for such periods in their lives?
b. What systems of assistance can be put in place to help pilots maintain and, when necessary, restore their psychological health?
Last year the British Psychological Society (BPS) convened an expert group of pilots and psychologists to produce a position statement on aviation psychology and pilot mental health. The paper, published in December 2017, includes an explanation of the challenging conditions in which pilots operate, useful reference and background on the topics, and a set of specific recommendations for 2020, covering the role of aviation psychologists, evaluating mental health, and promoting wellbeing. This paper is free to distribute and the link is given at the end of this article. Like so many other safety-related issues in aviation, successful management of risk is most likely when both pilots and airlines realise that they both share responsibilities. Neither can afford to take a passive role, hoping that the other group manages all the risk.
In response to the first question on preparing for difficult periods that may arise, research suggests that personality is fundamentally implicated. How individuals understand themselves, their behaviour, their emotions and others around them is crucial. Increased self-awareness and understanding of oneself can be an effective preventive aid in curbing the consequences of mental health decline. Unfortunately, many people have only a superficial understanding of personality, or even a negative connotation connected with personality 'testing' in the workplace. Indeed, many of us assume we already know our personality. However, the vernacular use of the term is often misleading. Decades of scientific enquiry has shown the most robust model of personality unfolds in no fewer than five inter-related dimensions, known as the Five Factor Model of personality. However, much of this structure is not readily apparent to us and most of us are somewhat blinkered to the nature of our personalities.
Most pilots will likely only have encountered a personality questionnaire while being recruited or, perhaps, considered for command upgrade, circumstances which may affect their willingness to be completely open in their responses. Also, organisations often don’t provide professionally interpreted feedback to the pilots. This is unfortunate, as one’s personality may be considered as an internal toolkit of powerful resources to be used to better adapt to any given situation. Having a clearer insight into these resources and their parameters means that they are more readily available in any circumstance.
Psychometrics is the general term used to describe instruments that measure different aspects of our psychology, cognition and personality. However, of the myriad commercially available psychometrics, many are not fit for purpose, typically because they are lacking a solid scientific foundation. Others are valid and reliable but their use and interpretation requires appropriately trained, qualified and experienced psychologists. One online assessment of personality that we do recommend is affordable, takes 20 minutes to complete, and is entirely confidential. It is based on the latest research into the Five Factor Model referred to above. An individual report, produced by a respected group of psychologists, is delivered directly to you and no one else. This assessment is not for typical organisational selection or assessment, nor will it diagnose any mental health issues. Its purpose is to help individuals to better understand themselves and others, by providing a comprehensive and clear explanation of an individual’s personality. The link to this assessment is provided at the end of this article.
*Providing you with robust, reliable data about yourself, which you can use to advance your professional performance and career, and identify those circumstances in which you are likely to thrive and those in which you are likely to need some assistance.
*A fuller understanding of yourself and your behaviours can help you to more effectively understand if and when your mental health may be in decline, and enable preventive intervention at the earliest possible stage.
*A better understanding of why other people behave the way they do, and so develop more effective ways of working with them.
In depth awareness of personality, self-assessment and self-critique are not only valuable life skills in any circumstance but are also part of the EASA Crew Resource Management training syllabus.
Appropriate support systems
The guidance published by the BPS provides some useful recommendations for steps that the industry can take to provide appropriate support for pilots who are experiencing a decline in their psychological wellbeing. Critical to this is creating an environment where pilots feel confident enough to be honest about their situation and so engage with help. One strategy, which is beginning to be introduced into aviation, is the Peer Assistance Network (PAN). Non-judgemental, empathic listeners familiar with local work practices may be able to provide assistance well before an individual experiences a decline in psychological health that may impact performance.
Many studies have been conducted demonstrating the effectiveness of peer intervention. Because peers work in the same company and have volunteered to help, there is an experiential bond which facilitates the interaction between peer and supporter. Now that many pilots face long periods away from their normal support networks (such as friends and family), access to a peer support network can provide much-needed help. Peer support is simple but not easy. Setting up a PAN requires perseverance, as immediate buy-in by sometimes cynical employees takes time. Finding non-judgmental listeners with the ability to maintain confidentiality is equally challenging. Another challenge is that pilots are almost hard-wired through training to provide solutions to problems. However, those experiencing difficulties very rarely want another person’s solution. Instead, they want the opportunity to talk about their problem in a non-judgemental setting where they are listened to. Reflective listening is a skill requiring formal training that is short, typically two days, but, in most cases, perfecting the skill takes considerably longer. There may be cases where the peer supporter feels that further help is required. Knowing when to suggest that somebody needs professional help can be difficult but well-trained volunteers can be invaluable in ensuring that those who need to access further assistance are well informed and well supported in doing so.
For the reasons stated, establishing a peer assistance network in your organisation can be challenging but the benefits will far outweigh the problems. These include de-stigmatising mental health issues; providing a safe environment that discourages employees from denying, concealing or ignoring psychological health issues; improving operational safety and keeping valuable employees in their jobs. Most importantly, it can be a lifeline for an individual who is struggling to deal alone with their difficult situation.
Despite how we might like to think of ourselves, none of us are immune to the slings and arrows of arrows of life. By gaining an understanding of our innate strengths and weaknesses, we can better predict how we might react to difficult events. The aviation industry also needs to be pragmatic about the fact that no human being can maintain perfect psychological health forever and in how it manages the risks associated with this fact. Do we try and catch pilots out with more frequent tests and assessments so that we can ground them at the first sign of trouble? Such assessments require honesty on the part of the pilot and so putting their license in jeopardy may merely drive problems underground. Alternatively, do we create an environment where pilots are confident enough to admit when they need some help in the sure knowledge that they will be supported? Captain de Crespigny’s response was a shining example of the latter option and through education, preparation and establishing suitable assistance networks, we should ensure that this option is available to all pilots.
- The British Psychological Society Position Statement on Pilot Mental Health – www.bps.org.uk/news-and-policy/aviation-and-aerospace-psychology-pilot-mental-health-and-wellbeing
- Big Five Aspects Scale personality assessment – www.understandmyself.com
- RAeS Human Factors in Flight Operations and Training (HFG[Ops]) – www.raes-hfg.com/hfg-ops-membership
- LinkedIn group: Royal Aeronautical Society Human Factors Group – Flight Operations and Training
PAUL HARRIS – Chartered psychologist, aviation psychologist, co-author of BPS Position Statement (above), author of chapter ‘Assessment of Personality’ in the book Pilot Mental Health Assessment and Support.
NICK CARPENTER – Airline captain, aviation psychologist and currently setting up a Peer Assistance Network for contract pilots in Asia.
DAVID MORIARTY – Formerly a medical doctor, now an airline captain and chair of the RAeS Standing Group for Human Factors in Flight Operations and Training
The authors have no commercial interest or relationship whatsoever with the Big Five Aspects Scale online personality assessment.
On 24 May, the Royal Aeronautical Society will be holding a one-day conference: 'Aircrew Mental Health: Going Beyond Compliance' at RAeS HQ. More details here: https://www.aerosociety.com/events-calendar/aircrew-mental-health-going-beyond-compliance/