"Champions from within your workforce who promote mental health are the best way to change attitudes and cultures in an organisation. What we're trying to do is get firefighters to look after themselves, and their mates."

About the initiatives

Fire & Rescue NSW provides firefighting and rescue services across metropolitan, rural and regional New South Wales. The agency has a diverse workforce comprising 6,800 firefighters, 400 administrative staff and more than 6,000 community fire unit volunteers.

For the past 23 years, Fire & Rescue NSW has run a volunteer peer support program. This initiative provides support following critical incidents and stress interventions, including over-the-phone and on-the-scene assistance for colleagues.

Initially developed as a reactive program to respond to incidents, it has since embraced a more proactive approach. This includes highlighting mental health issues and stress in the workplace, providing information on how and where to get support, and creating a holistic approach to wellbeing.

The peer-to-peer focus has been one of the most successful features of the program – firefighters are encouraged to connect with ‘mates’ in the first instance, who they can relate to and who understand the intricacies of the job (rather than a psychologist or their managers). This focus helps break down perceived barriers to accessing support and ensures that people are referred to relevant support when needed.

In addition to the peer support program, other mental health and wellness initiatives include:

  • a dedicated wellbeing team, comprising a wellbeing coordinator, health promotion manager, a team of chaplains, consultant practitioners, and an external employee assistance program (EAP) for access to professional counselling and assistance
  • regular discussions between the wellbeing coordinator, health promotion manager
    and managers and staff to ensure that the organisation remains proactive and on top of the issues that matter to the workforce
  • peer support members receive regular complimentary health checks
  • health and wellbeing are promoted via education sessions and information posted around the workplace
  • participation in SANE Australia's Mindful Employer mentally healthy workplace training program
  • participation in community initiatives such as Mental Health Month and R U OK Day.

How the initiatives came about

While firefighting is a rewarding experience, the organisation recognised that the role can be extremely demanding and traumatic. There is also a culture among firefighters to show toughness and strength. There were concerns that despite looking after others, firefighters were not looking after themselves. The organisation felt that more could be done to foster a culture of openness and sharing among firefighters to help deal with the stress of the work.

Benefits and outcomes

Several benefits have resulted from these initiatives:

  • the majority of peers remain active; there are extremely low attrition rates and there is currently a waiting list of volunteers who want to become peer support members
  • staff are more willing to ask for help
  • more staff are accessing the services of the EAP
  • there has been a shift in mindset within the organisation about post-traumatic stress
  • staff and their families have provided positive feedback about the impact of the program – some report that it has been life-saving
  • fewer worker’s compensation claims.

Recommendations, considerations and lessons learned

Challenge: Breaking the ‘toughen up’ mindset

Actions:

  • Whole-organisation support is important to encourage a male-dominated workforce to seek help
  • Encourage the use of EAPs and the Peer Support Program
  • Educate staff about stress management and the importance of looking after yourself

Challenge: Evaluating the key success factors

Actions:

  • Measuring the success of the peer program is difficult as the majority of discussions are confidential and unreported
  • Peers report on the types of activities that they have engaged in while retaining confidentiality about who accessed their support

Challenge: Choosing the right Peer Support Members

Actions:

  • It is crucial that Peer Support Members are appropriate to the role
  • The role is not incentivised so that candidates have a genuine interest in and dedication to supporting their co-workers

Challenge: Gaining support from management

Actions: 

  • Management support is important to create an organisational culture that proactively promotes mental health and wellbeing
Mark Dobson
Fire & Rescue NSW

Mark Dobson
Wellbeing Coordinator
Fire & Rescue NSW