Pilots’ mental health: a year of crisis

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In mid-2020, as the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic was steadily increasing, we caught a glimpse of another impending crisis: pilots’ mental health.

Across the world, pilots encountered layoffs, pay cuts and non-existent flight hours. It was not long before these developments took a severe toll on their well-being. As the aviation industry dealt with the most challenging event in its history, companies scrambled to cut their losses, perhaps not realizing how much it would affect their people.

A year later and it could be said that the industry has had plenty of time to evaluate the situation and enact appropriate measures. But has it risen to the challenge? And what has changed over the past year?

A new normal

In the early months of the pandemic, everybody was waiting for things to return to normal. This trend has disappeared. The IATA has been more pessimistic than ever before; airlines are adding another year to their recovery predictions; and nobody waits for a miracle anymore.

Meanwhile, the same problems persist. At the start of the pandemic, a shortage of pilots changed into a surplus – an army of highly qualified professionals with nothing to do. Pilots struggled to find opportunities, let alone job offers, according to Kristina Mateikaitė-Repšienė, a recruitment specialist at AeroTime Recruitment.

“The situation has barely changed. Although we feel a bit of recovery, countless pilots still have no jobs. Even more uncertainty is added by the fact that, for many, a year without flying has passed. This creates a lot of pressure.”

Before the crisis, many airlines held a requirement that a pilot’s previous flight was within the past 12 months. For the mass of pilots laid off since last year, even a complete sector recovery would mean a slew of difficulties over rehiring due to skill decay and uncertainty over recruitment practices.

Those who have been lucky enough to hold onto their jobs have likely felt the impact of industry-wide pay cuts. Pilots in some airlines saw their wages reduced between 20% and 70% or more, leading to struggles between trade unions and companies that have not always ended up in pilots’ favor.

The only positive change between the first months of the pandemic and now, for some at least, was the disappearance of unreasonably tight schedules. In its early report on the deteriorating state of pilots’ mental health, the European Pilot Peer Support Initiative (EPPSI) outlined an increased workload due to increased cargo operations and emergency flights as the most pressing issue. With the decrease of emergency operations, this issue has been solved. But it, at least in part, got replaced with the international shipping of vaccines which came with its own set of challenges.

The impact on mental health

The situation pilots found themselves in should be seen within the broader context. Worldwide lockdowns resulted in the unprecedented increase in suffering and anxiety. Add to that the challenges unique to the aviation industry, and it should come as little surprise that, according to a report published by the University of Dublin’s Lived Experience & Wellbeing Project, more than half of pilots in the study met a threshold for mild depression.

Meanwhile, less than a quarter of aviation workers said that they have obtained support to manage their wellbeing and mental health from their employer. Some 92% said that they are in need of this help.

“This is entirely unsatisfactory. At a time of huge need, very little has been done,” said Dr Joan Cahill, Principal Investigator of the project and Senior Researcher at the Centre for Innovative Human Systems.

Nevertheless, some attempts have been made at government level to tackle these issues. In December 2020, a number of European countries signed a declaration calling for a “socially responsible” COVID-19 recovery, maintaining that uncertainty and less-than-ethical practices have plagued the industry, with workers suffering the most.  

But the impact of these initiatives are difficult to assess, in contrast to the impact of practices it is designed to prevent. In April 2021, the European Cockpit Association (ECA), a major pilots’ labor union, started publishing a Hall of shame of anti-worker practices, an endeavor impressive in its scope and depth. One look at that list puts into perspective the governmental efforts, and exemplifies the need to do a lot more.

The majority of cases, listed in ECA’s Hall of shame, involved atypical employment schemes such as making pilots self-employed, putting them on zero-hour contracts or in pay-to-fly (P2F) schemes, all measures aimed at reducing pandemic-induced loss for an airline while, according to ECA, abusing pilots’ situations with adverse effects on their well-being.

Unintended consequences?

And the efforts that have been made to improve the lot of pilots have not always been effective.

“The aviation industry manages ‘worker well-being’ from the perspective of addressing fitness for work issues, and the management of safety and risk,” said Dr Cahill. “The focus is on detecting illness and the presence of factors that might negatively impact on safe performance, for example, fatigue or intoxicants. There is little focus on promoting positive well-being and preventing illness.”

The responsibility of being “fit for duty” falls on the employee, and the success is measured in terms of the benefit to the company, disregarding the toll it takes on the individual. This is not a new issue but it has risen to the fore because of the pandemic, and is worrying because of its connection to safety.

In aviation, mental health and well-being is directly tied to safety. Its deterioration due to the upheaval in the aviation sector was a major concern in the early days of the pandemic. For example, in the first half of 2020 the U.S. Commercial Aviation Safety Team (CAST) issued an unprecedented amount of warnings, as it was believed that the effects of groundings on both pilots and aircraft may lead to unprecedented increase in accidents.

In fact, that didn’t happen. The amount of accidents between March and August 2020 decreased disproportionately, despite the effects the crisis had on pilots.

But that was just the beginning of the pandemic. Pilots have been facing the same challenges for a year now, and it is only a question of time when we will reap the consequences of that. It could be said, that by not paying attention to the mental health of pilots, the airlines are tempting fate.

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