“What other job requires you to be in a constant state of hyper vigilance and alertness yet at the same time be a counsellor, a social worker, a lawyer, or a prison warden. What other profession authorizes you to take a person’s liberty, or potentially use deadly force, but then mandates that you attempt to save the person’s life that has just tried to kill you? What job causes you to wonder whether you will come home to your loved ones after you bid them farewell each and every day as you head off to work?” – Submission by Mr Grant Edwards to Parliament of Australia
Emergency service workers and first responders are more than twice as likely as the general population to suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Ten per cent of emergency service employees have probable PTSD, compared to four per cent of the rest of Australia.
Exposure to difficult situations and traumatic events on a daily basis, including death, violence, natural disasters, greatly increase the risk of developing or exacerbating mental health conditions. There is also the added stressor of long hours on shift-work schedules which contributes to feelings of isolation and the ‘toughen up’ mentality which plagues many workplaces.
We’ve compiled five early intervention & prevention strategies proven to deliver successful outcomes:
- Family first
A first responder’s family and their personal support system is where changes and difficulties are first noticed. Close family members are more likely than colleagues or supervisors to notice changes in mood or behaviour.
The employee’s family should be empowered to act as an additional layer of protection through professional-led educational seminars on available support systems, recognising warning signs and ways they can assist their loved one.
- Building a healthy first responder workplace
Australia21 recommends organisations embed “people-focused leadership with associated accountabilities at all levels in the organisation.”
An independent review of mental health conducted for Victoria Police found that protective factors in the workplace included:
- Leadership support
- Well-defined work priorities
- A collegial learning-oriented environment which encourages debate and feedback
- A climate that validates well-being and early help-seeking behaviour
“The organisational challenge is to ensure that operational managers and leaders are equipped with the best possible understanding of the reality of this complex landscape through ongoing in-service training, so that their decisions are as well informed as it is possible to make them.
“This commitment to equip people with the best possible knowledge and training is an important part of the implicit social contract between the organisation and its staff that, when operating well, strengthens capability.”
- Supporting and training managers
People-focused leadership requires the support not only of frontline staff but also of their managers. Many managers are genuinely motivated to do the best by their affected personnel but may not feel comfortable doing so or lack confidence in their own skill set.
The Black Dog Institute conducted a randomised controlled trial with UNSW Sydney which considered the impact of a four-hour mental health training program delivered to managers from a first responder organisation. The results found large reductions in absences due to work-related sickness and yielded a return on investment of nearly $10 for each dollar spent.
Mental health screening should be offered to all first responders, particularly those who have been exposed recently to serious incidents, a repeated number of events or who are noticeably affected.
The Black Dog Institute developed HeadGear – a smartphone application which “allows workers to screen themselves for symptoms and baseline risk of mental health problems and to undertake a ‘30-day mental health challenge’, which is customised to try and reduce their risk of new mental health problems.”
When mental health symptoms are present, a further investigation of trauma symptoms by a mental-health professional should be undertaken and support offered throughout the period following trauma.
- Resilience training
The Black Dog Institute in collaboration with UNSW found online resilience training significantly increased levels of psychological resilience, boosted mindfulness, optimism and the use of healthy coping strategies.
The Resilience@Work (RAW) Mind Coach is an interactive online program designed to build resilience in workers through ten interactive learning sessions which include practical strategies known to protect mental health and build resilience.
Hear from directly Dr Samuel Harvey, Head of the Workplace Mental Health Program at UNSW & The Black Dog Institute, at the 4th Annual Mental Health Strategies for First Responders conference.
Running from 25 – 27 February, the event provides strategies to support the holistic wellbeing of your personnel, insights on overcoming the stigma associated with accessing support services and methods to engage & equip management to support first responders.