Germanwings case study

Call centre staff suffered mental health problems including Secondary Post Traumatic Stress following Germanwings crash after Lufthansa ‘outsources grief’

  • Lufthansa, who own Germanwings, which now trades as Eurowings, outsourced the crisis call centre to Bosch Service Solutions in Liverpool following the deliberate plane crash on 24 March 2015.
  • Staff who were used to dealing with general customer services enquiries such as handling lost luggage and request for flight details, were asked to volunteer to liaise with the victims’  families for an initial period of two weeks but many are still based in the crisis team today.
  • Staff who had no previous experience of dealing with issues of this nature were offered minimal training and counselling resulting in ongoing mental health problems, including secondary Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and fits during the night.
  • Lufthansa bosses told staff to “recommend a bridge next time” after a suicide note from a bereaved family member

Call centre workers Lisa and Carolina are taking legal action against their employer after their mental health was significantly affected after suffering years of trauma in a mismanaged call centre set up to deal with  the aftermath of the plane crash which saw the German co-pilot deliberately crash into the side of a mountain in 2015. Although Lufthansa had a similar call centre in Germany, they chose to contract out the difficult task of speaking to the victims’ families after the crash, outsourcing the grief to the third party centre in Liverpool.

Lisa had an existing contract with Bosch Service Solutions in Liverpool dealing with customer service enquiries on behalf of Lufthansa. Lisa, originally from California,  is fluent in German and was asked to volunteer for two weeks to help deal with the crisis. Carolina, originally from Spain,  was recruited to  speak with Spanish speaking families affected by the crash. 

Lisa and Carolina both report that the harrowing nature of the calls, along with the lack of support from their employer and Lufthansa, including a staff psychologist, and the minimal training provided, combined to  cause them to suffer mental health problems. Travelling on planes now causes panic attacks for both of them and they are still experiencing extreme nightmares with visions of loved ones dying, as well as fear and anxiety in their daily lives because of the graphic nature of the phone calls after the crash. They also report that colleagues would regularly experience meltdowns, punching walls following traumatic calls.

At the start, both workers were told they could request a reassignment from the team or take temporary time away from the high pressure environment; that they could take time off following difficult calls if needed; and were told they’d only work on the crisis team for a short time. All of these promises were broken, with no breaks given, transfer requests denied and many staff still working on the crisis team years later, resulting in in ongoing mental health problems.

Management provided reactive and inadequate briefings on how to deal with the families during phone calls but offered little support to the staff themselves. An on-site psychologist was deemed so ineffective that Lufthansa sent their own company psychologist from Germany to meet with staff in 2016. She acknowledged the shortcomings to staff but it is believed that she did not report to superiors in Germany adequately or at all in respect of the severity of the issues. On a second visit in 2017, two years after the crash, Lufthansa’s own psychologist acknowledged staff members has been suffering Secondary Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Following that diagnosis the company has still failed to act and offer current and former employees any support to deal with the problems they’ve experienced.

Attitudes at Lufthansa were exemplified by Stephan Bauchspiess, their liaison for Liverpool and a Vice President at the company. After Lisa received a suicide note from a victim’s family member who had been denied a request by Lufthansa, Mr Bauchspiess reportedly said: “Next time they try to blackmail you, tell them that we can recommend a good bridge”, or words to that effect. Commenting on relatives of crew members who died in the crash, Mr Bauchspiess told call centre workers to deny requests, “relatives are just greedy,” he said, claiming the prospect of the plane crashing was “an occupational hazard”.

Solicitor Chris Mason, director at Brown Turner Ross, acting for Lisa and Carolina, says the poor working practices and lack of support led to his clients suffering and wants their employer and Lufthansa to recognise they could have done more. He said: “ The circumstances of this tragedy and the aftermath have mental health issues at the core and it would appear that staff mental health has been inadequately considered by Lufthansa and Bosch Service Solutions, from the pilots to the call centre staff. The final report in to the crash found that the co-pilot Andreas Lubitz had been suffering from psychiatric issues he hid from the airline. Although airlines across the world are now reviewing their procedures for pilot mental health, the case of the call centre workers in Liverpool highlights that lessons have not been learnt sufficiently. These measures should apply to all staff and Lufthansa and Bosch Service Solutions should recognise the psychological strain they put Lisa and Carolina through. The way that this tragedy was managed, both beforehand and afterwards, must call into serious question the competence of senior members of both organisations.”