Uplink ALPA - The Voice of Aviation

The New Zealand Air Line Pilots' Association Newsletter. As of April 2020 Uplink ALPA is a 6-monthly publication.

The Importance of Peer Support for Pilots

Clinical Psychologist Laura Fildes
Clinical Psychologist Laura Fildes

The Importance Of Peer Support For Pilots

NZALPA colleague organisation the Australian Federation of Air Pilots (AFAP) recently promoted this piece by Sydney-based clinical psychologist, Laura Fildes, who has been working closely with the organisation on the importance of peer support programmes.

Various industries utilise peer support programs as a key component of their wellbeing services. The emergency services have long recognised the benefits of peer support, as have industries with FIFO communities. IFALPA has recently identified peer support as being integral to any mental health support service for airline pilots.

The AFAP has an invaluable peer support program that works across industry and across the country. The AFAP trains its Welfare Representatives to be a listening ear, look out for their colleagues, advocate for safer work spaces and refer to professional services. Some of the issues Welfare Representatives are trained to assist with include substance issues, performance and work-stress, personal, grief and family problems and the challenges unique to being a pilot that can impact on your own and your family's wellbeing. 

One of the largest issues faced in the field of mental health is not the available treatments, but perceived stigma and other barriers that people face to access these services. A peer support program can overcome physical barriers by ensuring there is a local member of the community whom staff, volunteers and families can talk to. Importantly this program also overcomes psychological barriers to accessing support by engaging a peer, who others may feel more comfortable talking to than a professional whom they do not know.

Pilots work as part of a crew where they interact with other pilots as part of their daily duties. Most of this time is spent in the cockpit of an aircraft, by definition a closed space where close human interaction is unavoidable. The fact that the work is very proceduralised, with checklists, call outs and structured decision making, can allow for the recognition of issues. Pilot relationships with peers are easily formed and this often permits an understanding and insight that others in the organisation do not have access to.

If there are less barriers for pilots to self-disclose, and if peer supporters are onsite to identify symptoms early, then early intervention and a positive culture of speaking about mental health is possible. Where mental health concerns are identified early and treatment can commence swiftly, the outcomes are considerably better. 

A physically and mentally healthy workforce benefits both the pilots and the airlines. Airlines may save significant amounts of money through lower sick rates and absenteeism, while keeping a motivated staff who are engaged in their jobs. A peer support program also encourages pilots to deal with problems rather than hiding them out of fear of losing their license, job and livelihood. 

There are some key requirements of a peer supporter role, and it is important that this support is provided by a pilot who is knowledgeable about the limits of confidentiality such as the Welfare Reps for AFAP. This includes identifying individuals who meet a broad range of competencies, not restricted to the following: 

  • high emotional literacy; 
  • high interpersonal skill; 
  • personal resilience; 
  • non-judgemental stance; and 
  • respected within their team.  

We all have a role to play in overcoming stigma and being a support to our peers. It is important to use skills of active listening when providing support to a colleague who may be struggling. 

Prevention is always the best option. If you have experienced a critical event, either work related or personal, the peer supporter can pass on some basic tools to help mitigate and manage the normal reactions that can be expected. The key to a quick recovery is early recognition that a problem exists.

Stress is defined as the body’s response to any demand made of it and it is both normal and necessary. Stress overload, however, is neither normal nor necessary. If you or your family recognise a change in your normal behaviour then perhaps it is time to seek help.

A peer supporter is also trained in the available services such as the Member Assistance Program (MAP) and other programs offered by AFAP. They can assist a pilot to make appointments with these services that we know many pilots are apprehensive about reaching out to.

NZALPA supports the industry peer to peer support initiative PAN NZ, a program made up of trained Pilot and Air Traffic Control peers that are ready to support aviation professionals through periods of stress. A referral to PAN is available by contacting the coordinators confidentially on 0800 PAN 100 or assist.coordinator@nzalpa.org.nz

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