Published in March 2016 issue

Taking a Closer Look at Flight Crew Stress

When Flight Crew members are subjected to chronic stress, it affects both their physical and mental health. The body’s stress responses are not designed to be continuously engaged and, unless they can be vented through relaxation, disengagement, or even professional help, mood disorders, such as anxiety and depression, can develop. Typical Flight Crew members hold no greater fear than that of losing their flying status; thus, naturally, they are fearful to seek help for their problems.

By Jamie Cross

You only have to cast your mind back to one year ago, to March 24, 2015, to realize the devastating consequences of Flight Crew member psychological issues. That was when 27-year-old German Co-Pilot Andreas Lubitz intentionally slammed Germanwings (4U) flight 9525 into the French Alps, killing all 150 people aboard.

That of Germanwings was not a unique suicide-homicide tragedy; in November 2013, LAM Mozambique Airlines Flight 470 fell out of the sky, with the loss of 33 lives, after the Captain had shown a ‘clear intention’ to crash the jet. Other crashes, such as those of EgyptAir Flight 990 and SilkAir Flight 185, were also attributed to Crewmembers, for unknown reasons.

Three years ago, a JetBlue Airways (B6) Captain had to be restrained after he had run through the cabin of a New York (JFK) to Las Vegas (LAS) flight yelling about religion, terrorists, and a possible bomb on board. The flight was diverted and safely landed in Amarillo (AMA), Texas. Captain Clayton Osbon was charged with ‘interference with a Flight Crew’, and stripped of his wings; however, he was found not guilty by reason of insanity after a forensic neuropsychologist testified—in a short, unpublicized trial—that Osbon had been suffering from a ‘brief psychotic disorder’ brought on by lack of sleep, as reported by Associated Press. Three dozen passengers sued JetBlue, claiming that the airline had been grossly negligent in allowing Osbon to fly. In the same week of the Germanwings crash, Osbon himself filed a $14 million suit against JetBlue, claiming that the airline had failed to ensure that he was fit to fly, thus allowing him to endanger the lives of both crew and passengers.

Many studies carried out in the aviation community indicate that both Pilots and Cabin Crewmembers are generally under a lot of stress and pressure.

The author compiled a survey that asked Flight Crew members about their perceived stress. A total of 266 personnel completed the survey, 76% of whom were Pilots and 24% Cabin Crewmembers. The responders were mainly from the European Union (53%) and North America (17%). Almost 30% had 20 or more years of experience. Their titles ranged from Captain (34%), First Officer (25%), and Training Captain (14%), to Cabin Crew (7%), Senior Cabin Crew (7%), and Flight Purser (9%).

Stress is commonly defined as the body’s response to the demands placed upon it. It’s a normal condition of life and a normal reaction to challenging situations. A certain level of stress is fundamental to keeping a person aware and vigilant

However, too much stress will affect both physical and mental performance, and prolonged stress can eventually lead to ineffective decision-making, mental breakdown, and long-term serious illness.

There are many recognized stressors: financial problems, work (or the lack thereof), bereavements, domestic problems, illnesses, fatigue, and lack of experience or training. Stressors are cumulative; for example, Pilots or Crewmembers who had been in domestic arguments before arriving at work, and then encountered problems while airborne would perceive a greater level of stress than they would from either of the two stressors individually. Stress, exacerbated by jet lag and lack of routine, may also reduce Flight Crew members’ attention levels by disrupting their sleep patterns.

My survey asked Flight Crew members about their levels of stress in the workplace. The results are shown in Figure 1.While the levels of stress recorded may be broadly aligned with those found in other industries, what is disturbing here—in a safety-critical industry— is the number of participants who were usually or frequently under stress while at work, who had allowed an increase in acceptable risk because of that stress, or who had experienced a reduction of alertness due to stress (17%, 8%, and 14%, respectively).

Many Flight Crew members said that they had some ability to keep stressors from entering the work environment, thus leaving their performance unimpaired. However, over onequarter of respondents reported that they found it either ‘very difficult’ or ‘quite difficult’ to keep personal worries, concerns, issues, etc. out of their working day.

One method of measuring work stress is to examine job satisfaction. Job satisfaction can be defined simply as how content individuals are with their jobs. It comprises two elements: the nature of the work, and the relationship that the workers have with their employers, including the supervision they receive.

The results revealed that slightly less than half of the surveyed Crewmembers were content with their employment. Over half felt that their employers never or only occasionally cared about their personal well-being. Over one-third felt that their employers frequently or usually demanded too much of them. This suggests a far from ideal employee/employer relationship aspect of job satisfaction. It means that Crewmembers are limited to finding job satisfaction in the nature of their work, rather than in their relationships with their employers.

The unsatisfactory nature of these relationships became clearer when the participants were asked to specify whether they were satisfied or dissatisfied with certain aspects of their jobs. The participants were asked to rate their satisfaction or dissatisfaction with regard to six Satisfiers (called Motivators by Psychologist Frederick Herzberg in his two-factor theory) and six Disatisfiers (called Hygiene Factors). Figure 2 shows how Flight Crew members were motivated by their responsibilities, interest in the  job, promotions, personal development, and achievements—but felt that they did not receive sufficient recognition. Of the satisfiers, the Flight Crew members were satisfied with their relationships with their colleagues, working conditions, salaries and supervision, but did not like company policies and administrative practices.

In other words, the Flight Crew members loved their jobs, but found their relationships with their employers to be unsatisfactory—a large potential source of stress.

Everybody needs an outlet for stress; the saying ‘A problem shared is a problem halved’ advocates that an effective way of dealing with stress is to confide in someone. A useful outlet could be represented by work colleagues; however, when asked how often they would discuss with work colleagues any personal issues that may affect their performance, 58% replied ‘never’ or ‘only occasionally’. Similarly, when asked how likely they would be to discuss with friends or family members any personal issues that may affect their performance, 38% replied ‘never’ or ‘only occasionally’.

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If, then, the Crewmembers felt that they could not discuss their stress with work colleagues, friends, or family members, what about professional help? Approximately three-quarters of the participants stated that they would ‘never’, or ‘only occasionally’, contact their employers with regard to stress issues, for fear of possible negative effects on their careers. Employers may promise confidentiality and anonymity, but employees have strong reasons not to trust such promises—especially as employers cannot guarantee confidentiality and anonymity in cases of unsafe or unfit-to-fly Crewmembers.

There are a number of reasons for Crewmembers to be reluctant to contact any individuals or organizations with regard to stress or other personal problems. They worry they would be seen as less reliable, miss out on promotion opportunities, and, most significantly, lose flight status, ending up with permanent marks on their employment histories.

In spite of this, some Crewmembers felt that they did not need professional help. When questioned on this, only 9% of respondents said that they had consulted company therapists or counselors. And only 18% stated that they had consulted external therapists or counselors (i.e. not associated with their companies), showing once again that Crewmembers do not trust their employers.

Further, the survey shows that, if a person does go through treatment, follow-up is much more likely from an external agency. Follow-up is important for therapist to see how individuals are responding to and to adjust the treatments if necessary.

The survey then went on to address Confidential Reporting Systems (also known as Confidential Incident Reporting, or Confidential Safety Reporting). Confidential reporting provides a means to report any sensitive information that may have influenced an event, information that a person would be unwilling or unable to report by other means. Confidential reporting should not be confused with air safety reporting, cabin safety reporting, routine safety reporting, or mandatory occurrence reporting. Most major airlines have such a reporting system. A number of similar systems exist independent of airlines, such as NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS) in the United States, and the Confidential Human Factors Incident Reporting Program (CHIRP) in the United Kingdom.

When asked whether their companies had a Confidential Reporting System, 84% said ‘yes’ while 8% stated they were unsure (probably because such a system was absent from their particular airlines). When the Crewmembers were asked whether they had ever submitted a report, about one-third replied that they had submitted a company report and one-third that they had submitted an airline-independent report. Since eight out of 10 airlines do have a Confidential Reporting System, these statistics suggest that some crew would still rather use an independent one. The survey also showed that just under half of the reports were never followed up by the companies or independent agencies, meaning that the individuals had received no feedback from their submitted reports. This might discourage further reporting.

Ultimately, the purpose of an incident reporting system is to prevent accidents and fatalities. The information obtained can be used to identify system vulnerabilities and gain a better understanding of the root causes of human error. These vulnerabilities may include reporting on other Crewmembers who, for whatever reason, were not discharging their duties in a safe manner or who were performing erratically. A properly managed system is non-punitive. It cannot succeed without the cooperation and complete trust of the community that is expected to use it.

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When asked whether they held any fear of reprisals or blame if they submitted a confidential report, 43% of the Crewmembers replied ‘yes’ with reference to company-specific schemes, while 20% did so referring to airline-independent ones. Clearly, such systems are not instilling in users the intended levels of confidence. It’s important to note that confidential reporting is not anonymous. Rather, users are only anonymized at some stage in the process. Evidently, this inhibits the submission of reports, thus leaving incidents unreported.

This fear of retribution, which makes individuals reluctant to participate, jeopardizes confidential reporting. However, neither authorities nor airlines can alleviate this fear by guaranteeing impunity from legal action. Many countries have laws that oblige authorities to investigate aviation-related occurrences. In cases in which Crewmembers are charged with willful misconduct to a degree perceived as being beyond the limits of acceptability—such as cases of acts of sabotage, gross negligence of substance abuse—it is necessary for criminal prosecution to follow. In these instances, Crewmembers could reasonably foresee the negative outcomes of their actions; however, in the majority of cases, they would have been acting with the best of intentions and neither would they wish nor expect their actions to lead to disastrous outcomes.

The final section of the survey questioned participants on whether they would report on their colleagues. When asked how often they would report unusual behaviors or actions that could endanger safety, 43% replied either ‘never’ or ‘occasionally’, suggesting a strong reluctance to tattle, either out of principle, of fear of the consequences for their colleagues, or of a wish to remain under the radar themselves. The participants were then asked what actions they would most likely take if they noticed that a friend, who was also a work colleague (a Pilot or Cabin Crewmember), displayed some of the symptoms from a list made up of common signs of mental illness. 10% of flight crew included in their response that they would not take any action; in other words, a crew member showing signs of mental illness would be left unapproached or unreported (Figure 3).

Most airlines screen Pilots’ personalities and emotional statuses before hiring. However, after this initial screening, the airlines rely on confidential reporting systems that are not trusted by their users. Much depends on what patients would be willing to share about their mental and emotional states. There certainly is no blood test, brain scan or questionnaire that can reliably predict whether a patient will become violent.

Unfortunately, this is a story that does not have a happy ending.

Clearly, Flight Crews feel that they have nowhere to take their personal issues to be dealt with. The systems that airlines put in place fail. The systems that the authorities put in place, such as the recently introduced procedure of always requiring two Crewmembers to be present in the cockpit, are not going to prevent another Germanwings tragedy. The majority of aircraft accidents are blamed on human error—the Pilot fails the system. However, the survey suggests that the system is, in fact, failing the Pilot.

Even before the results of the survey were analyzed, it became apparent, through the comments left by the respondents, that some Pilots were angry and wished to disassociate themselves from Andreas Lubitz, as though he had been some kind of freak and exception, and not a member of the aviation community. This is completely understandable. However, given the correct set of circumstances and if chronic stress is allowed to develop, the situation will repeat itself unless the Flight Crew members, their airlines, and the authorities will find ways of dealing with those issues of mental health and stress that can affect anyone.

So, what is the solution? Clearly, we must avoid situations in which the Pilots’ inner turmoil reaches such levels that, should it remain unexplored and unchecked, could lead to catastrophic outcomes. Subjecting Crewmembers to extensive and ongoing psychological assessments is not practicable— but, certainly, personalities or lifestyles should be monitored through some form of regular psychometric testing above and beyond that involved in the current system. It’s not enough for doctors to merely ask a few simple questions and observe the Crewmembers’ psychological states.

Much more should be done to enable Crewmembers to come forward and seek help without fear of recrimination, and to report on others without fear of unreasonable reprisals either against themselves or the persons reported.