The aviation industry must invest in its staff to give them the skills to understand, monitor and maintain their mental wellbeing, says a new position paper from the British Psychological Society.

The paper, Aviation and aerospace psychology: Pilot mental health and wellbeing, gives a psychological perspective on the unique working environment of airline pilots and looks at factors that may increase their risk of developing mental health conditions.

The research was commissioned in the aftermath of the Germanwings crash in the French Alps in 2015. All 150 people on board were killed and co-pilot Andreas Lubitz is believed to have intentionally brought down the aircraft amid alleged mental health issues. The paper has been written by a group of expert psychologists, chaired by Professor Robert Bor.

Unique environment, reluctance to talk

Aviation personnel, says the paper, work in a unique environment and endure a range of stressors that may place them at increased risk of developing mental health issues. The incidence of mental health conditions in aviation workers is difficult to determine as pilots are reluctant to disclose problems for fear of losing their licence to fly.

Regulatory body records suggest mental health conditions are second only to cardiovascular disease as a reason for loss of licence, so the application of psychology and use of qualified psychologists should be an integral part of the aviation industry’s investment in the wellbeing of their staff.

Aviation and aerospace psychology says airlines should bring in policies for the psychological upskilling of the wider aviation workforce to promote its optimum wellbeing. They should insist on high-quality psychological assessment throughout a pilot’s career, while pilots should be encouraged to understand their own mental health.

Averting a crisis

Professor Robert Bor says: “Commercial airline pilots are responsible for the safe carriage of thousands of people every day and the demand for air travel is predicted to double over the next 20 years.

“The aviation industry must invest in the wellbeing of their workforce to meet this demand and ensure safety is not compromised. It is very important that the application of psychology and the use of qualified psychologists is an integral part of that investment.

“The prevention and identification of mental health conditions before they lead to a crisis can be achieved if airlines implement high quality psychological monitoring and support and, where needed, assessment by qualified practitioners.”