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Peer support programmes – lessons from the field so far

by Dave Fielding BALPA Welfare Rep

EASA started the clock running last summer when it announced that all European airlines must give its pilots access to a properly constituted and run pilot peer support programme (PPSP) by August 2020. Many UK airlines have had PPSPs up and running for some time now, and the big carriers who haven’t are now well on the way and benefitting from experience gained elsewhere.

That still does leave the 150-odd AOC holders in the UK who aren’t large enough to run programmes themselves. Some may form small syndicates to share resources such as peers (ordinary line pilots trained up in listening skills and mental health first aid techniques) and aviation psychologists, who run the programmes independently of both management and pilot representative bodies. Most, however, are likely to use the CAA’s national P-PAN programme, which is currently being developed and happily BALPA is playing a significant role in its evolution. Thus, the UK is well on course to meet its obligations under the EASA legislation by the 2020 deadline. Nice to know that at least in some areas of European politics we are ahead of the game!

So, what have we learnt, both from the UK programmes that now have over two years’ experience under their belt, and also from established and mature programmes in various places around the world such as Australia and the USA?

These programmes are needed

When asked about their mental wellbeing, most pilots will normally use what is apparently the most common lie told in relationships – “I’m fine.” Pilots are by nature strong individuals: intelligent (honestly!), independent, decisive and problem solvers. The job demands it, we are largely self-selecting in this regard and the training we receive reinforces that mindset. Personal problems? Just take some exercise, eat more vegetables and get on with it.

The trouble is that extensive academic research and testing has shown beyond any doubt that pilots are, in fact, only human.

Astonishing though that conclusion might be to most of us, figures from existing pilot peer support programmes show conclusively that if you scratch beneath the “I’m fine” surface then pilots very much experience the same range of personal issues and difficulties as do the general population. Project Wingman in American Airlines, which was founded in 2011 and covers the 15,000 or so pilots in that company, handles thousands of calls a year. The AIPA/Qantas PAN, which is the daddy of PPSPs being founded in 1991 to handle the emotional fallout of the disastrous 1989 strike, dealt with well in excess of 430 contacts in 2018 out of approximately 2,300 mainline pilots. In the UK, our programmes are nowhere near as mature but the initial ones are showing requests for help about once every three to four days.

A Harvard study of US pilots in 2016 showed that out of nearly 2,000 surveyed, 12.6% had exhibited symptoms of clinical depression or a major depressive order within the previous two weeks. Within the same period, 4.1% said that they had had suicidal thoughts. Even with the inevitable under-reporting/disclosing factor of the typical pilot culture, these figures are starting to approach the societal norm. A 2011 study (Wittchen et al) of EU adults aged 18-65 showed that 27% had had at least one mental disorder within the previous 12 months. Within our own industry, a 2018 study of 1,150 UK pilots by the University of Eindhoven showed that 40% were experiencing high levels of burnout and disengagement.

This mental wellbeing stuff is clearly real, but it does not, of course, mean that all pilots are mad as a box of frogs. What it does show is that it is very likely that pilots will, at some stage of their career, struggle to cope. This is completely normal. The question is: what do they do about it?

Up until comparatively recently, the answer was: suffer in silence. This was not a particularly healthy state of affairs, and over many years accompanying BALPA members to disciplinary, performance and long-term sick meetings, I have seen the sad fallout of mental wellbeing issues not being addressed in a pilot’s life until it is too late. Members will frequently turn to BALPA when they need help, but the problem is that resources, training and experience are often in short supply. Company Councils report increasing traffic in this area, and so the mandated EASA legislation is timely.


Some programmes are not being used anywhere near as much as they should be

Given all the statistics laid out above, and the significant success of programmes worldwide, it is perplexing as to why in some UK airlines PPSPs are up and running yet the footfall through them does not mirror other similar programmes. There is much work being done to analyse the reasons why, but what is emerging already is that the culture of an airline is very important to the perception of the PPSP.

The issue is trust. EASA go into great detail in their regulation about the need for trust and how to engender it, but putting that into practice can sometimes seem like nailing jelly to the ceiling. It appears that if there is even the slightest perception that these programmes are ‘management’ and not confidential then pilots will not trust them. Data from the FAA and the CAA indicate that the level of pilots losing their licence permanently due to mental health issues is no more than 1% of those reporting such issues; in other words, a tiny number. Yet the stigma clearly remains that if “they” find out that you have a mental wellbeing issue then that’s game over.

This all illustrates that enormous care needs to be taken when setting up these programmes to ensure that they are truly independent and confidential. This must also be clearly communicated to the pilot population when launching it and in subsequent notices and newsletters. A healthy working relationship between the BALPA and Flight Ops helps massively in this regard, which leads to my final point…

Pilot peer support programmes are apolitical

Put bluntly, pilot mental wellbeing is too important to play political games with. It should be a subject that rises above the usual industrial relations landscape and be something that all parties can support unconditionally. In terms of a win-win scenario, they do not come any easier than this.

My profound wish, based on what is happening out there in implementing the EASA regulations, is threefold:

  1. Pilot representative bodies fully endorse and support PPSPs, both in their design and in their launch
  2. Management recognise that these programmes must be independent and cannot be perceived as part of the corporate structure. It may go against managerial instincts to have ‘problem pilots’ out there without them knowing and managing them, but that is actually what is necessary to persuade the pilots to seek help within the existing processes
  3. Pilots themselves trust that these PPSPs are completely confidential and are staffed by Peers who sign confidentiality agreements and Mental Health Professionals who are governed by medical confidentiality. No details will come out of the programme without the pilot’s consent, except in vary rare cases of threat to safety of self or others.

Help is becoming available for pilots to deal with the consequences of being human. Please use it if you need it. The consequences of not using it will almost certainly be worse.

If you are not sure where you can access your peer support programme, your Company Council should be able to point you in the right direction.