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Tackling stress head on

by Charlotte Branson BALPA Media and Communications Officer

In January this year, a US study revealed that being an airline pilot is the third most stressful job, just behind the roles of enlisted military personnel and firefighters (with the study taking into account factors such as travel and immediate risk to another’s life). I wouldn’t be surprised if some of you scoffed at this; pilots, while extremely proud of the work they do, have a habit of downplaying the importance of their roles and, in turn, how stressful this can be. However admirable a ‘just get on with it’ attitude might be, it can mean that when someone is struggling to cope with stress, they might ignore the problem rather than face it head on.

April marks Stress Awareness Month. You might ask why a whole month is needed to address this subject but, according to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), more than half a million people in the UK are suffering from work-related stress, depression or anxiety.

As a result, 12.5 million working days were lost in 2016/17. So, one might argue a whole month dedicated to highlighting this problem is, indeed, needed.

What is stress and what are the signs?

According to mental health charity Mind, there’s no medical definition of stress, and healthcare professionals often disagree over whether stress is the cause of problems or the result of them. However, it could be described as our reaction to being placed under pressure.

It’s natural to feel temporarily stressed from time to time, either as a result of work or home life – a particularly bad commute to work, or the washing machine packing in, for example – these small stresses are usually short-lived and will often dissipate once the situation has passed. However, consistent stressful factors that build up over time could start to have an impact on your mental health, manifesting themselves through problems such as anxiety or depression – or even your physical health.

The pressures of being a pilot are easy to identify: it’s a job that requires frequent travel, changing time zones, fatiguing shifts and time away from family. That’s before we take into account the huge burden pilots carry with every flight – being the last bastion of flight safety, and being responsible for the flight getting safely to its destination. Consistent stress may start to affect your behaviour, making you short-tempered, tearful or restless.

You might also find that you’re eating too much or too little, having trouble sleeping, and experiencing muscle tension, panic attacks or chest pains. It’s important to identify this behaviour and seek help as soon as possible, if you’re concerned that stress might be regularly affecting your work or home life. There is no shame in asking for help, any more than there would be if you were experiencing any other persistent illness.

What help is available to pilots experiencing stress? 

Recognising a need for support, a few years ago BALPA began creating a peer support programmes for pilots. Then Germanwings happened and this dramatically changed the way pilot mental health was approached, both publicly and within the industry. The issue moved firmly into the spotlight and EASA has put forward a number of recommendations in the wake of the tragedy, which are likely to be mandated in the latter half of 2018, with an implementation period of probably two years. BALPA has had some concerns over the justification for some of these new rules and, indeed, whether they will work (psychological screening), but we recognise the proposals are now unlikely to change before final publication. We wholeheartedly welcome EASA’s firm insistence on all European airlines implementing a confidential peer support programme for their pilots.

Because of the work BALPA had already done, we were quickly able to help many UK airlines, such as British Airways, easyJet and Thomas Cook, to get programmes up and running well in advance of the EASA regulations. To date, more than 75 per cent of the UK pilot population has access to a well-run peer support programme – and we should be proud of this. These programmes are the first in the world to be specifically designed to address mental health issues among pilots by using website technology.

It means that if pilots in those airlines feel they need to talk, they will now be able to find – via a dedicated website – a pilot colleague to whom they can speak in confidence. These peer support volunteers have been trained to listen and, if necessary, to point pilots to where they can get further help. Peer support is not an emergency service, but it can be the point where a pilot takes responsibility for his or her own welfare and starts the journey back to a more balanced approach to life and work.

The volunteer peers are ordinary line pilots, not trainers, management pilots or even union representatives. The message here is that you will talk to someone who ‘gets it’. The intent is to raise the profile of pilot mental health and wellbeing in our communities and remove any stigmas that may be perceived.

Colleagues should feel free to be able to raise concerns about fellow pilots, not in a ‘snitching’ manner, but recognising we are all one community and that we look out for one another. It should be noted that programmes sit independently from flight operations management structures, are totally confidential, and are backed by BALPA on that basis.

Remember, you can also speak to your GP or AME if you have concerns about how stress or other mental health issues might be having an impact on your work life.

Tips for combating stress

  • Set smaller, more achievable targets. We often expect too much from ourselves in one go. Sometimes, just removing the pressure we place on ourselves is enough to relieve stress.
  • Organise your time, whether this is by making lists or just setting a clearer routine, if possible. This could reduce the stress you feel from having too much on your plate.
  • Accept the things you can’t change. It’s easier said than done, but try to stop worrying about things over which you have no control.
  • Make some lifestyle changes. Eating more healthily, exercising more and getting more sleep all help to reduce stress. Again, this can be challenging when your routine is so unpredictable, but try to introduce some of these.
  • Reward yourself. All work and no play can lead to a very stressed pilot.
  • Do something you enjoy, buy yourself a new gadget or take that holiday you’ve been thinking about.

More information:

You can find more information about managing stress on Mind’s website, www.mind.org.uk

If you’re experiencing stress and would like someone to talk to, please contact your Company Council who can direct you to your peer support colleagues.

*Health and Safety Executive, see www.hse.gov.uk for more information