Monitoring self for possible stress indications is as important as monitoring the aircraft for possible glitches
Being a pilot is a fancy and admirable job, however it can also be a highly stressful one. Considering the irregular & demanding schedules, jet lags, long hours of travel, being away from family, pressure to perform & be deemed fit and most importantly the responsibility of ensuring safe travels for so many passengers aboard the flight, pilots have a lot going on under the caps.
The mental stress that pilots tend to experience has been a subject of mixed reactions. Lately though discussions have been brewing around the issue. Experts and members from the aviation industry have been acknowledging and considering the need to discuss and take initiatives to ensure mental well being for the pilots. Prior to taking off, monitoring self for possible stress indications is as important as monitoring the aircraft for possible glitches, they believe.
The National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) specifically talks about managing stress in single-pilot operations. Of the many physiological factors that can affect our ability to handle difficult tasks, stress may be the most familiar to us, but also among the most difficult to mitigate. And single-pilot operators may face the greatest risks from stress at the worst possible time, states NBAA.
European Business Aviation Association’ (EBAA) European Pilot Peer Support Initiative (EPPSI) highlights the following factors that can put a pilot’s mental wellbeing under pressure:
TOOLS & INITIATIVES IN PLACE
In the recent times though, the effects of stress are getting acknowledged throughout the industry, with many resources also being made available to help pilots recognise the signs of stress and mitigate them appropriately when preparing for a flight and making the final go/no-go decision.
NBAA suggests frequently performing a mental checkup as necessary. As with other aspects of operational safety, proper planning is also key toward mitigating the effects from stress on the flight deck, it states. Four-time space shuttle astronaut Charlie Precourt, who now serves as chair of the Citation Jet Pilots Association (CJP) Safety and Education Foundation and the CJP Safety Committee also echoes, “Preparation helps us to avoid ugly surprises that can send our stress levels soaring. It’s always better to be able to say, ‘I’ve seen this before and I know how to handle it,’ rather than to be faced with a big question mark at the absolute worst moment.”
The association further adds that one of the simplest tools to combat stress may be a mnemonic instilled in many pilots from their earliest days of flight training.
“I’m a big fan of the IMSAFE checklist [Illness, Medication, Stress, Alcohol, Fatigue and Emotion],” says Dr Greg Vanichkachorn, transportation section chief and senior aviation medical examiner at the Mayo Clinic. “It’s a good chance for single pilots to stop, give ourselves a once-over and ensure we’re prepared for the flight.”
NBAA specifically talks about managing stress in single-pilot operations, who may face the greatest risks from stress at the worst possible time
NBAA’s Risk Management Guide for Single-Pilot Light Business Aircraft also addresses the effects from stress to overall decision-making. The guide includes a comprehensive Flight Risk Assessment Tool (FRAT) worksheet that single pilots can use to assess the overall risk likelihood and severity for all identified risks for a given flight. Using a FRAT can also help single pilots as certain the likelihood of potentially stressful situations ahead of a flight and use that assessment to help them make the final decision. Different pilots may have different triggers for stress, so it’s also important that pilots apply FRAT results against their own stress profiles in addition to company policies.
In addition to having checklists, Todd Hotes, flight operations management and chief pilot for Polymer Resources, also emphasised how a FRAT, a full safety management system (SMS) or employing crew resource management/single-pilot resource management (CRM/SRM) all contribute to mitigating stress for single pilots. “These are all tools we have available to us to help make us more professional pilots,” he said, “and becoming a more professional pilot, in turn, reduces our stress levels.”
Last year, CJP launched its “Safe to Land” initiative to reduce runway mishaps, encompassing new procedures and callouts at specific “gates,” beginning from top-of-descent and continuing through the approach and landing. NBAA acknowledged how such defined procedures can also help pilots keep their stress levels in check, Precourt said.
Learning to properly manage external stress factors is another important duty for single pilots. Company employee assistance programmes (EAPs) and outside counseling options can be explored.
Adapting healthier lifestyle habits, including exercise and diet, ensuring proper rest and avoiding fatigue also help mitigate the effects from stress.
EBAA’S PILOT PEER SUPPORT PROGRAMMES
EBAA had also introduced a Pilot Peer Support Programme (PPSP). The PPSP is a formal structure or system whereby a pilot needing help can get support with mental wellbeing or life stress issues from a dedicated and trained colleague in a confidential setting. Such concerns are dealt with appropriately, with flight safety and the pilot’s welfare being the critical factors. There is still a lot of fear of repercussions and a stigma around topics such as psychological and mental health and this is an issue not unique to Business aviation. The question as to the effectiveness of an imposed programme in solving psychological issues as opposed to the general destigmatisation of mental health remains to be seen, EBAA had stated.
At the heart of this programme are Pilot Peers: motivated fellow pilots who are trained in basic listening and counselling skills. They have extensive knowledge of company policies and pathways to help which can assist the pilot in addressing their problems. These Peers are trained, mentored and supported by a suitably qualified Mental Health Professional (MHP). A Programme Lead or Programme Co-ordinator is in charge of the day to day running of the programme. An Oversight Committee of key stakeholders studies anonymised data from the programme and makes any appropriate recommendations for the company Safety Management Systems as well as for the running of the programme itself. Just Culture principles apply throughout. The programme operates with the belief that a well organised support system may prevent mental or personal issues from becoming a greater liability to both the individual’s career and the organisation’s safety performance.
While the internal stress dealt by pilots remains a topic of concern that is coming to surface, steps towards ensuring a mental wellbeing of pilots are needed to facilitate a healthy and safe experience. Acknowledgment of the issue, availability of tools post the concerns arise are important but what is also crucial is to prepare them and have pre-situational scenarios so as the pilots are better prepared for stressful situations. Thus, the trainings must be designed in manners that they expose them to extreme situations, prepare them as well as inform them about the possibility of mental stress and the available tools.