Researchers say industry practice should change to encourage workers to seek help when they need it
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Last modified on Wed 2 Jun 2021 07.49 EDT
Airlines are overlooking the mental health and wellbeing of pilots and other aviation workers in their scramble to get planes flying again, according to researchers.
Many aviation workers experienced anxiety, stress and depression during Covid-19 lockdowns, but they report feeling discouraged from acknowledging problems or seeking help, creating potential safety hazards and health problems.
The warning this week from the Lived Experience and Wellbeing Project – a Trinity College Dublin hub that studies aviation worker wellbeing and the impact on performance and flight safety – came as airlines across the world increase flights and start rehiring pilots and crew.
A total of 1,841 flights were scheduled from UK airports to France, Spain, Italy and Greece for the two weeks from 17 May, a rise of more than 300% compared with the previous fortnight. Airlines in the US inaugurated hundreds of new routes last week.
Aviation workers will welcome the chance to regain their salaries and reboot their careers, but survey data suggests many will feel depleted as they return to cockpits and cabins, said Paul Cullen, a commercial airline pilot and research associate with the Trinity College team.
“We can’t sweep this under the carpet or dress it up. The data says a certain number of pilots were struggling pre-Covid but they wouldn’t disclose a mental health issue to their employer because of the stigma and fear of losing their license and perhaps losing their salary.”
Just as airlines have procedures to ensure mothballed planes are airworthy, humans need attention too, said Cullen. “You need to do the same for the crew to make sure they’re airworthy.”
The team conducted a survey of more than 1,000 pilots worldwide in 2019 and found that 18% had moderate depression and 80% moderate burnout. More than three quarters of the respondents said they would not disclose such issues to employers and 81% said they did not feel valued by employers.
A second survey of more than 2,000 aviation workers – mostly pilots, cabin crew, air traffic controllers and engineers – in August 2020 found they suffered more than the general population during the pandemic. A fifth of pilots and 58% of cabin reported moderate depression, compared with 23% for the Irish and UK populations as a whole.
Many aviation workers lost incomes during the pandemic, and some had faced having their homes or cars repossessed, said Cullen. “Once back at work those workplace hazards that were an issue pre-Covid will come back. But individuals’ resilience won’t be as strong as before, and this could potentially impact on flight safety.”
After the pilot Andreas Lubitz deliberately crashed a Germanwings plane in 2015, killing all 150 people onboard, the European Commission ordered airlines to assess pilots psychologically before recruitment. The rules seek to prevent a similar tragedy by offering pilots access to a support programme in case of mental health problems.
The industry, however, does not gather data on wellbeing and some pilots fear reporting mental health problems or accepting help, for instance peer support programmes, lest they lose their licence to fly, said Joan Cahill, the Trinity team’s principal investigator.
Wellbeing is a factor in safe performance and employers need to do more than offer access to gyms and yoga, said. “They need to provide support for their staff – mental health awareness training, peer support, access to counselling. The regulations are not for forcing airlines to do this, and it’s driving pilots with wellbeing issues underground.”
Flexible rosters and crew pairing processes, along with practices to encourage openness, can protect crew wellbeing and airline safety, she said. “Given current licensing requirements and cultural norms, aviation workers are unlikely to acknowledge problems and seek support/help. When somebody is ill, we want them to put their hand up and acknowledge this and seek help.”
Niven Phoenix, a commercial pilot who heads Kura Human Factors, a company that trains pilots and advises airlines, said some were “wilfully blind” to wellbeing because it was inconvenient.
“There is a whole host of evidence out there that organisations don’t want to listen to. Aviation is very, very safe but it is so unforgiving.” More focus on staff wellbeing would protect licences, livelihoods and lives, he said. “Awareness is the key to change.”
Janet Northcote, a spokesperson for the European Union Aviation Safety Agency, said the industry and regulators worked with aviation psychology representatives and other specialists to enhance workers’ wellbeing and help them cope with any “wellbeing degradation” before it became a safety hazard.
Peer support groups, training and awareness activities take place regularly across Europe and the agency had flagged the potential degradation of skills during the pandemic as part of a Return to Normal Operations project, said Northcote.
“It has focused also on the impact of Covid-related events (isolation, losing loved ones, being unwell yourself or having sick relatives) on the wellbeing of crew members, and suggested ways to mitigate these potential hazards.”
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