Grief is flowing yet again for loved ones lost in an air disaster, so what can we learn from the appalling end of Germanwings Flight 9525?
A memorial to one of the victims of Germanwings flight 9525, set up near the crash site. Photo: Getty
When Andreas Lubitz intentionally flew a Germanwings airbus A320 into the French Alps yet another 150 passengers’ lives were lost. The Aviation Safety Network recorded 761 deaths in 12 commercial aviation accidents in 2014 alone. These numbers certainly don’t help the trepidation many people feel when they get on a plane. With the focus now drawn to the fact that our lives are truly in the hands of the people sitting at the pointy end of the plane, that anxiety is likely to be heightened for many.
The power any of us have to influence our safety while flying is largely limited to the choices we make about which airlines we use. We depend greatly on the people who work for the organisation taking the steps necessary to ensure our safety. On behalf of the 150 people who trusted Lufthansa leading up to these events, presumably many of us want to know how this tragedy could happen. Why was someone who was struggling to cope with life to the extent Andreas Lubitz was, allowed to be alone in the cockpit of an aircraft?
“The event is a stark reminder that we are all responsible for influencing the mental health and well-being of people at work.”
In a press conference, Lufthansa chief executive Carsten Spohr confirmed that Lubitz had taken several months off work without disclosing why, but said he was considered mentally and physically fit to fly. Knowing what we know now, Lufthansa may have missed some vital cues. Despite putting Lubitz through the psychological tests required to begin training, and regular physical examinations, his employer did not recognise his mental state and the serious risk he posed to himself and others.
The story that has come to light since the tragic events that unfolded on March 24, is of a young man struggling to deal with the breakdown of his relationship, the deteriorating eyesight that posed a very real threat to his career, and a long history of mental illness. Andreas Lubitz was struggling to hold on to what he loved and was frightened about what the future held for him. Desperate to hang on to the remnants of hope that remained for a life he had long dreamed of, Lubitz was a man on the edge with apparently little support around him.
The London Telegraph reported prosecutors as saying: “The fact there are sick notes saying he was unable to work, among other things, that were found torn up, which were recent and even from the day of the crime, support the assumption based on the preliminary examination that the deceased hid his illness from his employer and his professional colleagues”. While this may well be the case, how is it that no one was able to see through his facade to the very serious problems that lay beneath? And if they did, what did they do with that insight?
Only the people at Lufthansa can answer that question. To understand what happened and what steps can be taken to avoid it happening again, everyone at Lufthansa needs to reflect on whether the organisation’s culture, the work conditions of their pilots, or approaches to managing health and safety contributed to this disaster. The event is a stark reminder that we are all responsible for influencing the mental health and well-being of people at work.
We all need to:
Connect: Get to know people and spend time talking to them. Build trust and respectful relationships that will allow people to talk to you when they are struggling.
Care: Look out for your mates at work and if in doubt ask them if they are OK. Show people that you will stand by them and help in any way you can.
Employers need to:
Manage culture: Create a respectful and compassionate workplace culture that inspires people to look after themselves and one another. Hold themselves and others accountable for behaving with respect and kindness.
Educate: Help people to understand the signs of mental illness to look for in themselves and others. Provide information about support resources that are available.
Give: Allow people the time and flexibility to access the support they need. Have patience and do what can be reasonably expected to guide people through tough times.
Focus: Draw attention to the impact mental illness has on individuals, teams and your business as a whole. Make mental health and well-being matter and take proactive steps to have a positive influence.
Act: Take decisive steps to respond to troubling signs of mental illness among members of your workforce. Work closely with people to ensure they take responsibility for accessing the help they need.
Karen Gately is a leadership and people-management specialist, and author of The People Manager’s Toolkit: A Practical Guide to Getting the Best From People.
Support is available for those who may be distressed by phoning beyondblue on 1300 22 4636; Lifeline 13 11 14; Mensline 1300 789 978; Kids Helpline 1800 551 800.