Is resilience the most valuable skill for a pilot?
After the German Wings 9525 crash in 2015 in the French Alps, a survey of pilots mental health was conducted among nearly 2000 pilots in the US and Europe. The results were then published in the Environmental Health journal in December 2016. One of the findings showed that 12.6 % of the pilots were on the threshold of clinical depression. The survey cast light on a reality distorted by taboos and the preconceived notion of what pilots are supposed to be like. Pilots, of course, are no different from other people, and they do experience the same ups and downs as everybody else.
In 2016, Resilience Development became an EASA requirement in Crew Resource Management training. But what is resilience, and are we able to actually train pilots around the world to be more resilient?
Resilience is a psychological term that came about in the 1970s. Psychologists working with dysfunctional families found that siblings are able to develop differently despite coming from the same background with identical conditions. While one of the siblings would follow the pattern of their parents, the other would somehow break the pattern and create a better life. This sibling would be what is called resilient.
Though it seems that there are different ways of defining resilience, my approach to resilience development is based upon this definition: “Showing the ability to successfully navigate high levels of challenge and change, and to bounce back after stressful or traumatic events.”
After many years of talking about stress management, resilience might be the new term used for pilots to cope in an industry that is changing more rapidly than ever before. Resilience implies being prepared not only for what you are trained but also for unexpected (black swan) events. We don´t really know exactly how we will respond or, in other words, how resilient we are, until it happens. Research actually shows that people are more resilient than they think when faced with adversity.
The Hudson River incident showed a crew of high resilience, faced with the unexpected. Having procedures and checklists incoherent with the actual situation and yet being able to bounce back in a calm competent manner, despite the huge time pressure and high stress load. Every day there are situations in aircraft around the world that demonstrate crews of high resilience, we just haven’t heard about them because the catastrophic outcome was prevented.
Adversity, challenge, and change come in many shades. Taking a look at the development of the flight industry over the last few decades, I would claim that pilots in general have already demonstrated a great deal of resilience: going through a variety of changes and challenges in the form of bankruptcies, adapting to a global changing world (often at the expense of family time), accepting poorer conditions in terms of salary, Loss of License conditions, retirement pay, etc. and still they bounce back into the cockpit seat.
Let’s take a look at the skill of being resilient. What is the difference between resilient and non-resilient people?
There are 3 different ways of facing an adverse condition:
1) An eruption of anger
2) Overwhelmed by negative emotions, going numb, becoming unable to react
3) Becoming upset about the disruptive change and then coping
From a human brain’s perspective this can be linked to the stress response: fight, flight or freeze. The eruption of anger and feeling overwhelmed is the work of the amygdala, ensuring our survival mode when we are faced with a threat, sending signals for the release of hormones like Adrenaline, Noradrenalin, and Cortisol. What is seen in less resilient people is that these hormones remain active longer causing the feeling of a persistent threat, thereby shutting down for the rational brain, prefrontal cortex to be engaged.
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