Most people working in ambulance, fire and rescue, police and state emergency services (SES) manage the demands of the job well. A culture of camaraderie and loyalty can protect the mental health of workers and contribute to their wellbeing.

However, research indicates police and emergency services workers are at greater risk of experiencing depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, and dying by suicide. Between July 2000 and December 2012, 110 police officers, paramedics and fire-fighters took their own lives in Australia.1

The nature of emergency services work means police and emergency services workers routinely face life and death challenges and can witness very distressing situations. Like other workers, they can experience common workplace risks to mental health, such as heavy workloads, high demands, and bullying. Stigma regarding mental health conditions is still prevalent in many traditionally male-dominated occupations, such as emergency services.

Promoting mental health in a police and emergency services organisation

Investing in mental health makes good business and operational sense. Organisations with a positive approach to mental health and safety have increased productivity, improved worker engagement and are better able to recruit and retain talented people.2 They also have reduced absenteeism, risk of conflict, grievances, turnover, disability injury rates and performance or morale problems.3

Research by PwC has shown that every dollar spent creating a mentally healthy workplace will, on average, have a positive return on investment of $2.30.

Taking action

There are practical steps all police and emergency services organisations can take to promote mental health and reduce suicide risk within their workforce. The Good practice framework for mental health and wellbeing in first responder organisations provides practical guidance on how to take action.

The Framework identifies five core areas of action:

 

1. 

A systematic approach to risk management

Each police and emergency services organisation is different and has specific risks when it comes to mental health. A systematic approach to risk management examines the impact of the community, the organisation, systems within the organisation and individual factors, to build the organisation’s specific risk profile.

2. 

Implementation of a mental health strategy

Developing and implementing a strategic plan to create a mentally healthy workplace is a fundamental, proactive step. Integrating the plan into daily work activities, reviewing and learning from it, will bring the plan to life.

3. 

Developing leadership capability

Leadership and management practices strongly influence how workers cope with and manage operational demands. Good leaders know their people and can detect signs that a team or individual may be struggling. It is critical to develop their confidence and skills to have difficult conversations early, and know how to manage situations effectively.

4. 

Take action to reduce stigma

Tackling stigma is a fundamental step in promoting mental health and wellbeing in a police and emergency services organisation. Many stigma-reduction initiatives cost nothing and simply require courage. One of the most effective ways to reduce stigma is to invite people with a personal experience of recovery from a mental health condition, self-harm or suicide to share their stories in the workplace.

5. 

Educate and prepare your workforce

There are many known risks and likely events that can occur in police and emergency services roles. Preparing workers for the impact of these situations and providing information and guidance about how to respond effectively is an essential part of developing confident, capable and resilient police and emergency services workers.

 

There is a wide range of initiatives to promote mental health that should also be considered across the career lifecycle of a police or emergency services worker. Each organisation should think about their specific needs and consider which strategies will be most useful. Suicide prevention needs to be one of the ultimate objectives of any mental health and wellbeing strategy. Learn more about suicide prevention in the workplace.

Next steps

For organisational leaders

For police and emergency services workers at all levels

Find out more about taking care of your own mental health and supporting your colleagues.

Get support

  • Learn more about anxiety, depression and suicide prevention, or talk through your concerns with the beyondblue Support Service.
  • Access free, anonymous peer support around the clock from beyondblue's online forums. The forums are a group support space where people with experience of anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts share tips and advice on what works during the tough times. There is also a Trauma section for discussing PTSD and police and emergency services experiences.
  • Lifeline is a free, confidential, 24-hour telephone and online crisis support service.
  • The Suicide Call Back Service is a free, nationwide 24-hour professional telephone and online counselling service for anyone affected by suicide.

Tools and resources

  • Phoenix Australia (Centre for Posttraumatic Mental Health) is a not-for-profit organisation that promotes recovery for the 15 million Australians affected by trauma. Phoenix provides a number of fact sheets and videos about trauma and works with high-risk organisations to implement initiatives that promote mental health.
  • The Black Dog Institute and Fire and Rescue NSW developed this video clip telling the story of a fire-fighter who fought depression.
  • In the UK the Blue Light Programme provides mental health support for emergency services staff and volunteers from police, fire, ambulance and search and rescue services across England. The website contains a range of useful resources.

1. Victoria. Dept. of Justice. National Coronial Information System (2012). NCIS fact sheet. National Coronial Information System, Victorian Department of Justice, Southbank, VIC. 

2. Instinct and Reason (2014). Employer of Choice Study. Retrieved February 2016: https://www.headsup.org.au/docs/default-source/resources/instinct_and_reason_employer_of_choice.pdf?sfvrsn=4 

3. Standards Council of Canada (2013). Psychological health and safety in the workplace — Prevention, promotion, and guidance to staged implementation. CAN/CSA-Z1003-13/BNQ 9700-803/2013.