Germanwings air disaster not just about one employee’s mental health

This was a workplace disaster of the highest magnitude but there are undoubtedly many factors involved beyond just the mental health of the pilot, says employee stress and wellbeing expert, Ann McCracken

The Germanwings tragedy that resulted in the death of 150 people in the French Alps has produced universal distress on many levels.  The senseless slaughter of people brings the focus to the mental ill health of the pilot and much has already been written and said about this subject and recorded in the papers and news programmes.

Factually, it is important to note that it is incredibly rare for people with depression to cause death and destruction. However, this powerful condition can be extremely distressing and sometimes damaging for the individual and their family.

Most people in the workplace with this diagnosed condition manage their mental health well and the Equality Act encourages employers and colleagues to make reasonable adjustments.  The phrase “there but for the grace of God go I” has never been so true or poignant as, for any of us, mood can be affected temporarily and longitudinally by genetics, our emotions, diet, lifestyle, life events and experiences.

This was a workplace disaster of the highest magnitude but there are undoubtedly many factors involved beyond just the mental health of the pilot. All airlines, particularly ‘budget’ carriers, are notoriously under massive pressures to meet their time slots, fly to full capacity and slim down all margins. Pressures like these translate from the top down as managers implement a culture of heavy performance monitoring, unrealistic targets, draconian absence management procedures, possibly implemented through an autocratic or directive style, where resilience is defined as ‘can and will do anything at any time’.

In such a culture, with even just one of these styles, would you tell your manager about your health concerns, your feelings and emotions?  I am unaware if such management style exists at Germanwings or within other airlines, but I see examples of it in many organisations operating in the EU.

Naturally, there has been massive coverage of this horrendous tragedy, but focusing on the pilot’s mental health issues may lessen the emphasis on his working conditions and culture, and the interaction between them.

The workplace has to be profitable, but it also can be supportive, innovative, and flexible with policies that are enabling, not disabling. This requires management who understand how to mitigate psychosocial risk in a proactive, transparent and co-operative manner.

About Ann McCracken

Ann McCracken is a Director of AMC2 and the vice president of the International Management Association (ISMA UK) – the professional body for stress management Practitioners.

She specialises in developing a positive and resilient working culture in organisations by introducing effective strategies in performance and wellbeing at all levels. The effectiveness of such a positive working culture is measured and assessed using AMC2 Corporate Diagnostic innovative surveys which include measurement of psychosocial factors, stress and wellbeing. Having initially trained as a scientist, she carried out research with DEFRA and consultancy in the NHS.

She spent 10 years in Education before retraining as a stress management practitioner in 1996. She is the author of Stress Gremlins©, regularly writes/broadcasts and is an external lecturer at Westminster University. She is also a Key Note/Motivational speaker/Conference Chair.

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