Committee member

Mental Health in Aviation

Written by John Stevenson, Prospect negotiations officer.

Mental health in aviation is discussed widely and has been seen as a risk factor for all civil aviation authorities but reports and commentary almost always focus on pilots and air crew. This is undoubtedly a concern, especially since events surrounding the Germanwings flight in 2015. But, all too often those working on the aircraft; engineers, technicians, mechanics and all support functions, are omitted from any analysis. The well-being and mental health of engineering employees is of paramount importance to the safety of commercial aircraft.

Aviation has a long hour’s culture where 12 hour shifts are the norm. Shifts quite often fluctuate to meet the demands of the employer in order to ensure aircraft turn rounds. Shifts are also rarely permanently fixed; rather they are determined on a pattern that will include a mix of day, afternoon and night work. Employees often hold the view that they need to work long hours to gain promotion.

Working in isolation, especially on line stations, can place additional pressure on employees, especially when they have sole responsibility for the aircraft. Unsustainable stress at work is acknowledged to be unhealthy for employees and so the issue cannot be ignored in the interests of employees and aviation safety. Mental health issues affect a significant proportion of the general population, and engineering employees are by no means immune from this.
The stigma surrounding mental health still prevents employees from raising issues. Being open and honest, or asking for help, is often seen as a sign of weakness. Stress is not a weakness; it is a normal facet of human beings attempting to deliver the role required in an increasingly demanding environment. Stress is the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressure or relentless demands that exceed their resources to cope. When short-lived, this response to pressure can be beneficial: it motivates and can generate a buzz. However, if it goes on for too long without opportunities for recovery, it can have the opposite effect. The build-up of stress hormones, notably adrenaline and cortisol, and the changes they produce, can be damaging.
Prospect recently undertook a survey of members at a regional airline and found that:
• 36% say they have been subject to personal harassment in the form of unkind words or behaviour
• 28% sometimes acknowledged friction or anger between colleagues.
• Nearly 40% often or always are unable to take breaks.
The experiences of personal harassment and friction at the workplace are often indicators of things not being well in the culture of the organisation and this manifests itself in employees suffering from stress.
Symptoms of stress or depression include feelings of sadness, hopelessness, or just feeling “down in the dumps”; loss of interest a loss of sexual drive; unexplained weight loss insomnia or disrupted sleep habits; restlessness; fatigue; inappropriate feelings of guilt or worthlessness; lack of concentration, poor decision making; and thoughts about harming oneself, including suicide.

Often individuals are not the first to recognise that they have a problem. Work colleagues and family members often recognise that something is not right. Consequently one of the key aspects of dealing with mental health issues is for the individual to accept that things are not right and they would be best placed to seek treatment to ensure the problem is addressed. Seeking help sooner rather than later can reduce the severity of the problems
Employer’s actions
The employer should promote positive lifestyles and promote and operate a progressive Health, Safety and Welfare policy.
Employers should have a positive programme with relation to time off for bereavement, family issues, hospital and medical appointments.
Employers should establish with trade unions a mechanism for early reporting of issues and facilitate support using the principles of just culture and health care professionals.
Reducing Stress
• Being able to actually talk about what stresses you
• Take regular exercise
• Manage your time
• Take regular breaks
• Make time for outside activities

For further information follow the link for Prospect’s “Stress, Stigma, Solutions Representatives’ Guide”