Culture change needed to manage PTS among police, emergency services

Published 15 August 2017

Just as post-traumatic stress (PTS) exacts a costly toll on the military, it is taking a less-recognised toll on Australia’s police and emergency services.

Normalising PTS within emergency services culture will go a long way towards alleviating losses in personnel and efficiency, a seminar at the University of New England in Armidale heard last Friday.

Paul Barratt AO, the chair of public policy think tank, Australia21, told the seminar audience that the “first responder” workforce — including police officers, paramedics and emergency service workers — need a work environment that allows them to lead normal, healthy lives without being ‘damaged’ by their inevitable exposure to traumatic situations and events.

Prof Barratt’s presentation was based on the findings of an Australia21 roundtable on PTS in first responders.

A range of early intervention measures and ongoing education and counselling is needed to deal with PTS issues, Prof. Barratt said, combined with effective management of staff who were already on stress leave.

But above all, a change of culture is required to ensure that people who needed help to manage PTS are encouraged to do so.

“It shouldn’t be a career limiting move to put your hand up and ask for help,” he said.

“We need to change the culture to acknowledge that it’s normal for what we see and do to affect us, it’s normal to seek support if you feel you need it, and it’s normal to get better as a result of treatment.

“The people who are the cultural drivers in any organisation are middle management.

“If you have good guys at that level it helps take all the stigma from mental illness.”

A range of other measures needed to be established to effectively manage PTS in the workplace, Prof Barratt said, including more robust recruit screening and training; improved return to work strategies; better support and training for managers in dealing with PTS sufferers; and increased staffing levels to reduce exposure to trauma.

“No-one ever complained when the fire brigade came and put out a house fire, that they had three too many fire fighters,” he said.

“There is a certain number of people required to achieve a task, but organisations that don’t acknowledge that really put their staff under pressure.

“And the cost of having individuals succumb to PTS injury is enormous, both in the management of those affected, and the fact that they have been taken out of the workforce.

”Having people in a good mental state goes to how effective an organisation is.”

The findings of the Australia21 Roundtable on PTS in First Responders are expected to be handed down in October.