Herwin Bongers has been NZALPA’s Medical & Welfare Director for four years. During his time, he’s overseen the implementation of the Peer Assistance Network (PAN) programme – support designed specifically for pilots and air traffic controllers (ATCs).
The process took time, perseverance, commitment and good timing. Now, almost two years on, PAN’s benefits are clear, with more members showing trust in the process and willingness to open up.
Bongers, who has become a familiar voice on pilot welfare topics through national media, will relinquish the role this month, but will still remain closely connected to the programme.
“I was suspecting that a number of my colleagues were experiencing the usual anxieties, depression and fatigue – even alcoholism – but they were terrified to talk about their worries to anyone for fear of being considered unstable and potentially losing their jobs,” Bongers said.
“It’d been a concern of mine for a while, and when we lost two of our talented ATCs to suicide, I knew it was time for something to be done.”
It all began when Allen Baker, an aviation psychologist who had seen the results of a peer support programme for Qantas pilots, contacted NZALPA during the time Bongers was searching for a solution. Baker saw there would be a place for a similar programme to support the New Zealand aviation industry and, in his experience, fear of speaking up had caused pilots with stress-related issues to delay seeking help until much too late. This made the road to recovery longer and harder.
Baker not only knew he had a good idea, he also knew what it would look like in practice. With his input, a considered and detailed proposal was put to the Board of Management at NZALPA, and funding was secured.
“The weight of responsibility in the job of a pilot or ATC is huge,” Bongers said.
“If you add into the mix the everyday problems of a normal life – from minor family disagreements to divorce, death of a loved one or illness – you’re soon on the highway to a textbook breakdown.
“Problems happen when mental health issues lead to self-doubt. Considering the huge number of decisions pilots and ATCs make everyday, there’s no room for uncertainty and prevarication. Left unchecked, ‘What’s wrong with me?’ can quickly spiral into ‘I can’t do this anymore’, because they feel they can’t carry on. It’s a normal response to an abnormal situation, and it can be assisted with the correct support.
“Pilots aren’t automatons, and it’s only fair they should have access to the right kind of pastoral care to help them through tough times.”
The PAN’s pastoral care consists of a network of industry workers who have a complete and intimate knowledge of the pressures inherent in the job. They’re trained by experts in psychology to provide a helping hand when a pilot or ATC needs support. PAN will take care of the health and wellbeing of members of NZALPA at times of need, to ensure any issues causing anxiety are assisted before they get to crisis point. Further, sharing them is confidential and has the best outcome for the individual.
“This is what we call ‘Just Culture’ – it’s allowing for human error and treating it sanely and humanely,” Bongers said.
The PAN is a just one part of a full suite of assistance programmes currently in operation. Among other initiatives, it collaborates with the Human Intervention Motivation Study (HIMS), which has successfully helped more than 6000 pilots in North America recover from alcohol dependence.
For the second half of 2017, goals are clear: secure official endorsement from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), encourage the generation of guidance materials, and bring more aviation employers on board. With Jetconnect and Air New Zealand signed up, the work will be uniting others such as Jetstar and Airways New Zealand (for ATCs) as well as incorporating training academies such as the Massey University School of Aviation, and the CTC Training School in Hamilton.
Another future goal is to address female-specific issues within the industry, and those of a generational and cultural origin.
Far from leaving NZALPA, Herwin Bongers will be taking up a new role involving PAN:
“I’ve been appointed to replace Andy Pender, as he’s been elected into the position of Medical and Welfare Director. I’ll take up the reins in Andy’s current role of NZALPA PAN/CIRP [Critical Incident Response Programme] Coordinator alongside Mark Mehlhopt.
“It’s vital that trained professionals are at the helm of this initiative, which offers a ‘safe harbour’ and is able to lighten the load.
“From all points of view, pilots and ATCs must be at peak fitness mentally and physically. However, it’s wrong to think that being anything less than peak means you’re no longer capable. It’s normal to have these temporary dips; seeking help, and perhaps taking some time off, is OK.
“We have a common purpose of wanting to have ownership and positive outcomes; so personally, I’d like to see this wrap-around support network become industrywide, so that from the time a pilot or ATC starts training until the time they retire, they have this safe place to go.
“The travelling public also deserves to feel confident that the person in charge up front is on top of their game, professional and trustworthy.
“The acid test was when a pilot came to me and said he’d felt so relieved to be able to voice his fears in a ‘safe harbour’.
“I was able to reassure him that what he was going through was normal, and give him the assistance he needed to know he wasn’t alone and that others had returned to flying after experiencing a similar personal crisis. To give someone that reassurance is priceless”.
One of the legacies of Bonger’s work was the support he gave to the ATC team setting up its complementary dedicated Professional Standard’s Programme – also in coordination with NZALPA’s ATC colleagues in the US. Begun earlier this year, the programme will also take learnings from PAN and other initiatives.
It further demonstrates the care and respect NZALPA, New Zealand’s industry leader in aviation wellness support, has for members and the wider travelling public.
“It’s all about keeping New Zealanders safe in the skies,” Bongers said.
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