When in need, call the ‘peers’

If there is one singular truth about pilots it is that they are just humans: ordinary people, who learn, work, get married or divorced, take care of kids or relatives. Behind the uniform are adult humans who are just as likely as everyone else to experience poor health or suffer things like anxiety, depression and chronic disease. Whether the result of everyday life stress or more serious mental illness, pilots sometimes need help. And help is available: via the multiplying Peer Support Programmes (PSP) across Europe. Undoubtedly, the success of peer support is rooted partly in a basic and powerful characteristic of human beings – being supportive, being able to relate & put yourself in someone else’s shoes. But what else makes Peer Support Programmes such a success and why should airlines invest in them? The short answer: because Peer Support works.

Peer support is no silver bullet – it can’t magically solve all problems. But it has proven very efficient in prevention and early detection of issues related to problems of coping with daily life stressors, drug abuse and addiction and possible trauma after critical incidents. Pilots can approach the peers themselves or be referred to a PSP by a colleague or a relative at an early stage – before the issues start boiling up. This timely preventive approach allows for pilots to be guided to adequate help or treatment in order to safeguard their flying career and maintain aviation safety.

Critically, peers are the backbone of the PSPs. They are the ones who provide the crucial link between the pilot needing help and the necessary support. Peer supporters help pilots make sense of their (health) conditions or troubles and help them in practical ways that go beyond the confines of the available company structures or national health care systems. Sometimes they would apply listening and counselling techniques and attitudes. And sometimes, they would be the one responsible for providing psychological ‘first aid’ and referring the pilot to professional help. With one foot in the pilot community and the other in the PSP system, peer supporters, who are trained in that role, can make a significant difference and advance the recovery of pilots.

Evidence from existing programmes shows that this approach – early prevention & direct access to concrete support – has a very high success rate. Existing PSPs in Germany and the Netherlands, for example, highlight not only concrete benefits for the individuals but also for the “system”. Airlines could actually see it as a strong business case to invest in peer support. The sooner pilots get help, the less cost for the company (e.g. pilots on sick leave, pilots non-flying, training new pilots, etc.). In addition, the company sends a positive and motivating signal to all crews and employees.  

If that isn’t a good enough reason for airlines to invest in peer support, then EASA’s recent proposal to make peer support available to all pilots in Europe, might as well work as a catalyst. Following the Germanwings tragedy, EASA published an Opinion on pilot fitness mandating for pilots to have access to a support programme either set up by their airline or by third parties and/or a nation-wide basis.

This makes it even more important to build Peer Support Programmes on solid foundations. One such critical element for a successful PSP is the existence of a Peer Support Structure facilitated by and independent from management. Having a separation between the two entities allows for a trusted environment and adequate data protection and confidentiality.Without trust, the PSP cannot function as pilots would simply not use it. This is why having the active involvement in the set up and promotion of the structure by all relevant stakeholders, including crew representative organisations is crucial.

As the aviation community is warming up for mandatory peer support for pilots, aeromedical experts, aviation psychologists, pilots and Peer Support organisers, have joined forces to set up EPPSI – the European Pilot Peer Support Initiative. EPPSI would serve as a platform to facilitate communication between stakeholders and interested parties engaged or planning to get engaged in PSPs, and to exchange and promote best practices in setting up and running a PSP. As the initiative gathers speed and Peer Support continues to gain momentum, don’t forget that peer support is just around the corner.  

For more information, visit: www.eppsi.eu 

Pilot Support Programme - Guidance for operators (UK CAA)