Commercial Pilot Tejas Sreedhar was a working flight instructor and NZALPA member for seven years before he needed the services of the NZALPA team, but when it came to his time of need, the union was there with full support.
Tejas sustained serious injuries during an accident in 2014 and has since been helped by all aspects of the NZALPA offering, including the listening ear and support of the Peer Assistance Network (PAN) team.
He felt compelled to give back to the service in 2015 by becoming one of PAN’s first General Aviation (GA) Peer Support Volunteers (PSVs) to offer confidential support to his colleagues, and eventually join the PAN committee too.
“Like a lot of pilots, I remember thinking I probably wouldn’t need NZALPA for anything other than employment negotiations, but things do happen that are often outside our control,” Tejas says.
“It’s important for pilots and controllers to understand that beyond insurance and legal advice, there is a service that offers peer-to-peer support for a wide variety of issues – like mental wellbeing, employment and relationship issues.”
Peer Support Volunteers, he adds, offer aviation professionals support through their ability to understand the context.
“Often when things go wrong, and the pilot or controllers’ usual support people aren’t in the industry, it can be hard for them to have the difficult conversations about what is going on.
“Aviation is quite a unique industry and unless you’re in it, it can be difficult to understand. PAN’s PSVs have often been in the situation or know of someone who has experienced that particular issue, so can empathise and normalise what’s troubling someone.”
Often though, for PSVs, it’s not about giving advice, but just listening.
“Among pilots in particular, there is a tendency to sweep things under the rug rather than talk about them, but that’s not healthy,” Tejas says.
“Many just find it therapeutic to have the conversation with someone who genuinely understands what they are going through.
“Volunteers aren’t medical or mental health professionals but we are peers and, by very definition, we are someone more likely to understand or have experienced similar issues rather than a professional counsellor or family.”
Tejas recently attended the PSV refresher training course, which is led by the PAN Committee. The course includes instruction and advice from aviation psychologist Allan Baker, whose knowledge of the industry is a valuable asset.
“Allan has incredible insight into the issues we as professionals struggle with; the training is always so relevant and provides good coverage across everything we might be experiencing,” Tejas says.
Having been a PSV for several years, Tejas has watched PAN evolve as a service.
“I’ve seen it grow from a really good idea into a service that has a life of its own, and helps so many of our peers.”
Confidentiality, he adds, has been the service’s biggest drawcard for many participants and has contributed to the rapid growth of PSV numbers and PAN users.
“All PSVs appreciate the value of that confidentiality agreement.
“For aviation professionals, it’s re-assuring to know that what they say isn’t recorded or written down, and what is said remains between the individuals involved – even the CAA [Civil Aviation Authority] has made it clear that they support the service but do not require any specific data reporting.”
The CAA endorsed PAN in June 2017 with a letter of support.
Support has also been shown through benefactors Air New Zealand, Jetconnect and Virgin Australia New Zealand, which has helped raise awareness.
“Uptake from the ‘big players’ has boosted the programme,” Tejas says.
“It’s significantly increased the numbers of PSVs and, in turn, awareness among our peers.”
The service is available free of cost, and whether PSVs are approached through PAN or indirectly, the important thing is that people see value in talking to and leaning on their peers, who fundamentally want to help and stop problems from escalating, Tejas adds.
“PAN offers a means of support that will have no effect on our medical certificates or ability to fly.”
Tejas is excited that PAN is approaching flight training centres and encouraging their support, and also offering more support among peers working in the General Aviation area.
He says that the earlier we can reach pilots and controllers in their careers, the more likely we are to start normalising these conversations and the process of reaching out when they need support with mental wellbeing.
“We also can’t ignore that pilots in the first few years of their career are often at the mercy of tough working conditions and might experience anxieties about the implications of such disclosure on their career path, or training, or an employer – this is when we need to be there to reassure and support them.”
If you would like to have a confidential talk to a PAN-trained colleague, call 0800 PAN100.