Helping beyondblue develop the good practice framework for the mental health and wellbeing of first responders

Helping beyondblue develop the good practice framework for the mental health and wellbeing of first responders
By Paul Clifford, Chris Morgan & Rhianna Hobbs

The mental health and wellbeing of first responder professionals in police, ambulance, fire and SES services is vital for the effective performance of their role in responding to the community.  As such it is critical that organisations step in and provide wellbeing support to first responders and help build their resilience capability.

The good practice framework, commissioned by beyondblue, outlines practical actions that organisations can implement to help support first responders’ mental health and wellbeing.   It has been collaboratively developed by drawing on the experiences of first responder agencies across Australia, through a process led by FBG. It is the next step in supporting first responder organisations to destigmatise mental health issues and take an open, integrated and holistic approach to planning and implementing health and wellbeing measures in the workplace.  Whilst designed for first responder organisations, the framework has much applicability for informing any organisation’s wellbeing approach.   

Mental health exists on a continuum from ‘positive healthy functioning’ at one end, through to ‘severe impacts on functioning’ at the other and people can move along this continuum in either direction at different stages in their life.   

 

With this in mind, the good practice framework adopts a strategic and integrated approach to planning the provision of support to people at different points along the Mental Health Continuum. The result is the model shown below in Figure 2. Evidence indicates that a strategic, integrated approach to mental health and wellbeing in the workplace will lead to the greatest benefits for organisations and workers.

Figure 2: Good practice model for mental health and wellbeing in first responder organisations.
On the foundation of the Mental Health Continuum the good practice framework recommends a wellbeing strategy that emphasises primary, secondary and tertiary interventions underpinned by four important principles. 

Primary, Secondary and Tertiary Interventions  

  • Promotion: advocating for mental health and wellbeing by developing the positive aspects of work and workers strengths and capabilities. 
  • Protection: safeguarding mental health by reducing work-related risk factors for mental health conditions and increasing protective factors.
  • Intervention: addressing mental health difficulties and conditions among workers, regardless of whether the workplace was a contributing factor. 

Four Principles that Underpin a Wellbeing Strategy  

  • Shared Responsibility: A joint collaborative approach to mental health and wellbeing is fundamental to the health of any organisation.
  • Modifying risk and protective factors: Take action at organisational, team and worker levels to reduce risk factors and enhance protective factors where possible.
  • Strengths based culture: Leaders model health promoting behaviours, and build capability for supervisors and managers to build individual and organisational resilience.
  • Integrated Holistic Approach: Incorporates a broad focus to promote mental health and not simply treat the symptoms of mental illness.

With the foundations in place the good practice framework articulates five core action areas relating to mental health and wellbeing that every Australian first responder organisation needs to address.

Five Core Action Areas 

  • Adopt a systematic approach to risk: analyse impacts on organisation, community, individuals and systems related to harm and trauma. Develop risk mitigation strategies drawing from diverse sources.
  • Develop and implement a mental health and wellbeing strategy: develop a culture of continuous self-reflection & improvement, involve staff, and embed wellbeing as a strategic and normal part of organisational operations.
  • Develop leadership capability: build managerial capability to detect health issues early and positively influence how staff copes with operational demands by focusing training on people management skills, mental health awareness, self-care, and bullying.
  • Take action to reduce stigma: Remove deterrents to early access of mental health support services, to address issues before they escalate. Normalise mental health by inviting people to share their stories, make information readily available and adopt a zero tolerance approach to discrimination against those who access support.
  • Educate and prepare your workforce: Provide education and resources that promote positive mental health – from recruitment through to retirement. Focus on building employee and organisational capability.

The good practice framework is notable for the emphasis it places on strategy, prevention and integration. 

The framework is strategic because it creates an intelligent approach that encourages the use of evidenced based strategies to create real impacts on organisational wellbeing.  It understands that solutions based on anecdotal evidence rarely work and that wellbeing programs are only credible if they have a measurable impact on the wellbeing of the population. 

The framework emphasises the value of prevention as an important point of impact.   For too long organisations have focused the majority, if not all, their wellbeing efforts on intervention post injury.  The good practice framework however demonstrates the importance of working with employees while they are well, to maximise their wellbeing, with its impact on productivity, and to protect employees against sliding down the negative end of the wellbeing continuum.  

Finally, the framework emphasises integration.  It points to the fact that employees can’t do this on their own.  Organisational systemic factors play a role in determining employee wellbeing.  It is also vital that multiple complementary solutions are implemented to tackle wellbeing from all angles.  Without an integrated approach the organisation is likely to achieve some success and yet find that success undermined by gaps that keep the organisation in a perpetual state of tail chasing.    

As mentioned earlier, whilst designed for first responder organisations, this framework has broader cross-industry applicability.  How does your organisation stack up against this framework?  Have you identified some gaps that need to be filled in your organisation?  The good practice framework is a useful benchmarking tool that you can use to evaluate how well you are set-up to support the wellbeing of your people. Remember the wellbeing of your people is not a nice to have.  It is mandated in health & safety legislation and has significant impacts on organisational productivity and performance.  Now is the perfect time to make sure you have your own good practice framework to provide effective wellbeing support to your people.