Although support for personnel dealing with mental health difficulties has increased in the aviation industry, there is an urgent need to draw attention to the issue of prevention, according to a human factors working group at the Royal Aeronautical Society.

Mental health among pilots became a high-profile matter after the deliberate crash of a Germanwings Airbus A320 in 2015, and a number of other incidents have since underscored its importance.

But a project run by Trinity College Dublin, on psychological wellbeing among aviation workers in Europe, has found high levels of self-reported mental health issues are prevalent in all safety-critical stakeholder groups, not just cockpit crew.

The Royal Aeronautical Society paper says a “coherent approach” to managing and mitigating staff mental health would positively affect key areas of the civil aviation system.

“While the industry is doing more to support staff who are already facing mental health issues, there remains a lack of psychosocial risk management systems to prevent the development of mental health issues in the first place,” says chief executive David Edwards.

Cockpit-c-Unsplash Shandell Venegas

Source: Unsplash/Shandell Venegas

Mental ill-health is not only a concern in the cockpit but other safety-critical areas of aviation

The working group paper queries whether such risks can be monitored and quantified through psychological assessment of safety-critical personnel, in order to improve management strategies.

It recommends an approach which includes sponsoring research into prevalence of mental ill-health – including the problem of ‘burnout’ – to provide an evidence base that can generate discussion and shape policy.

Similarly research should be encouraged into links between psychosocial risk, mental ill-health and safety-related behaviour in aviation-specific groups, with a view to assessing how – perhaps with technological solutions – monitoring and mitigation can be integrated into safety-management system operation.

Current risk-management initiatives and existing standards could drive the creation of a guidance briefing for the aviation industry, and the establishment of cost-benefit modelling for mental health programmes.

“There is an existing body of evidence that shows that investing in mental health and wellbeing programmes shows a positive return-on-investment with data from non-aviation sectors globally,” the paper states, citing analysis from organisations including Deloitte and McKinsey.

“Mental health and wellbeing of civil aviation staff is a growing issue in maintaining the impressive safety record and operational performance of the sector,” says the working group’s chair, Marc Atheron. The group hopes its paper can provide a “tailwind” to the industry and contribute to developing a more strategic and holistic response to managing risks.