Ensuring positive mental health for front line workers has always been important, but in the wake of COVID-19, it’s never been more urgent. According to the Beyond Blue study ‘Answering the Call’, one in three front line employees experience high or very high psychological distress. So, how do we support these workers to process potentially traumatic experiences that they may encountered on the job? The answer may lie in building resilience.
Health Direct defines resilience as the “ability to cope with tough times by applying inner strength and engaging support networks.” For front line workers, traumatic and major adversity is often unavoidable. Over the past few years, first responders (paramedics, law enforcement, firefighters), aged care workers, Services Australia and health care workers have been under increased stress. These workers can also feel stressed by the significance of their roles, as without them, lives may be lost.
Building resilience against trauma provides long term positive outcomes. Noetic has found that trauma in workers can lead to a decrease in productivity, reduced operational effectiveness and an increase in potential costs such as medical expenses and litigation. According to a review by Safe Work Australia, front line occupations have the highest rate of claims for mental health (6.0).
Australia’s history with mental health
The link between mental health and overall positive health is well-documented. Australia has been addressing the issues surrounding mental health care since around the late 90s, following the publication of the Richmond report. However, the history of mental health care for front line workers is much more recent.
The 2011 Australian Defence Force (ADF) Mental Health Prevalence and Wellbeing Study (MHPWS) was the first study of mental disorder prevalence in an entire military population. The support of frontline workers and their mental health has seen a great improvement, especially following the 2019 summer bush fires. In January 2020, the Australian Government announced $76 million in funding to provide distress counselling and mental health support for individuals, families and communities affected by the bushfires. $16 million was dedicated to supporting emergency services workers and their families, creating specialist programs to deliver PTSD support.
Seeking the necessary support
The ‘Prevention of Trauma and Stressor-Related Disorders: A Review’ by Jonathon R Howlett and Murray B Stein suggested that ‘public policy and public health interventions to reduce violence, traumatic injuries, and other traumatic events have a major role to play in the primary prevention of acute stress disorders and PTSD.’
Noetic has identified that building resilience lies within key aspects – promotion, prevention, and support. Self-stigmatisation remains an issue with 33% of workers feeling shame around their mental condition and 32% feeling ashamed for the burden they believe it causes around them. By promoting open discussion around mental health, front line workers can begin to breakdown the surrounding a self-realised sense of shame.
The ability to identify trauma and its effects is vital when building resilience as it enables workers to recognise negative reactions and respond appropriately. Encouraging a culture of prevention means educating workers and staff on how to identify the signs and take the necessary action.
Building strong support networks and providing relevant resources for workers such as the Building Resilience program, workers can have access to the tools which enable them to manage the impact of traumatic events.
So, what current services support the front-line workers unrelated to specific disasters? Fortunately, there are some excellent existing services to support workers. The COVID-19 outbreak has highlighted the need for greater support with many services catering for workers directly impacted by the pandemic.
Some of the existing services include:
- DRS4DRS: An independent program that provides confidential support to doctors and medical students across Australia.
- RACGP GP Support Program: A program providing free and confidential specialist advice for GPs.
- Nurse & Midwife Support: A confidential advice and referral support services for nurses and midwives available 24/7.
- Hand-n-Hand: A free pre-clinical peer support service that matches dedicated, experienced mental health volunteers with healthcare workers.
- Ten: A Black Dog Institute network providing a checklist, resources, and mental health service for health professionals.
- Police and Emergency Services Program: A Beyond Blue program promoting positive mental health among current and former/retired employees, volunteers, and their families.
While acknowledging the great programs currently available, it should be recognised that there remains a gap in the skilling and equipping of workforces in building mental health resilience and dealing with traumatic events before they occur. The Building Resilience program, developed by Noetic Group, complements existing programs by building individual capability through the exercise and development of learned skills and techniques, to manage responses and reactions more actively and effectively, to potentially traumatising events.
The Building Resilience program is a partnership between Pax Centre Psychology Services and Noetic Group, and looks to provide lasting, longer-term capability in front line workers, not just managing the consequential impacts of exposure to traumatic events.
To learn more about the Building Resilience program, visit https://noeticgroup.com/services/building-resilience/.
 ‘Mental Health’, Safe Work Australia https://www.safeworkaustralia.gov.au/topic/mental-health#:~:text=Over%20the%20five%2Dyear%20period,)%2C%20specifically%20police%20(6.6)
 ‘Mental Health Action Plan 2013-2020’, World Health Organisation https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/9789241506021
 ‘The Australian Defence Force Mental Health Prevalence and Wellbeing Study: design and methods’, Miranda Van Hooff, European Journal of Psychotraumatology, Taylor and Francis Online https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.3402/ejpt.v5.23950
 ‘Australian Government mental health response to bushfire trauma’, Department of Health https://www.health.gov.au/health-topics/emergency-health-management/bushfire-information-and-support/australian-government-mental-health-response-to-bushfire-trauma
 ‘Answering the call’, Beyond Blue https://www.beyondblue.org.au/about-us/about-our-work/workplace-mental-health/pes-program/national-mental-health-and-wellbeing-study-of-police-and-emergency-services