HR Lessons from the Germanwings Disaster

GermanwingsThe crash of a Germanwings flight in the French Alps, killing all those on board, is an unspeakable tragedy.

That evidence indicates it was the result of a deliberate act of the co-pilot makes it all the more horrifying.

Numerous news reports surround the mental health of the co-pilot, including information about a torn up sick note indicating he was not fit to fly on the day of tragedy, and that he reportedly took a leave of absence during his pilot training for serious mental health reasons.

This tragedy highlights some important HR lessons that can be applied across numerous workplaces. We have summarized below some recommendations for employers from an article written by Tim Lawson and Justine Lindner of the law firm McCarthy Tetrault.

Respectful Work Environment

That the co-pilot may have hidden important medical information from his employer is an indication that a significant social stigma remains around discussing mental health issues, particularly in the workplace. As we’ve discussed in a prior article, it is a legal requirement for employers in British Columbia to take steps to prevent and address workplace bullying and all types of harassment in the workplace. This includes ensuring your workplace culture makes it safe for employees to confidentially discuss potential mental health issues.

Given the obligations to do so, this tragedy is a reminder to ensure that your workplace is respectful of employees with mental health issues by:

  • having a respectful work environment policy, and training managers and employees on the policy and procedures,
  • educating staff on the signs of mental health issues and the confidential procedures to follow regarding a suspected mental health issue, and
  • offering an employee assistance program to provide employees with resources in dealing with mental health issues.

Training for Safety-Sensitive Positions

As a result of the Germanwings crash, airlines in Canada have changed their policies to require two people to be in the airplane cockpit at all times. While you may not be operating an airline, you may have employees who work in safety-sensitive positions environments. Have you considered the consequences if an employee were to experience an acute health issue on the job? Have you provided employees with training on what should be done if s/he experiences acute mental health symptoms which affect their judgment on the job, like confusion, fatigue or panic? These discussions should be done with care and tact, and show that you will be supportive of those who may need assistance.

Workplace Accommodation

The “duty to accommodate” is a complex employment law topic. It essentially arises where the employer knew, or ought reasonably to have known, that the employee had a disability. So if one of your employees is displaying uncharacteristic behaviour which may be the result of a mental health issue, then you should take proactive steps to discuss this with your employee, and not just wait for the employee to tell you s/he has a mental disability. The symptoms of mental health issues make it challenging to determine whether there is a duty to accommodate. Given the potential consequences when dealing with employees in safety-sensitive positions, it is prudent to seek the professional guidance of an employment legal counsel and/or an human resource management expert familiar with employment law for dealing with these complex employee relations matters.

For HR services to create and implement HR policies and HR training dealing with creating a respectful work environment, please contact Vancouver-based Clear HR Consulting.


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