Good morning everyone.
I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation, and, in a spirit of reconciliation, pay my respect to their Elders – past and present.
Thank you for inviting me to the 18th Emergency Management Conference. I am delighted to be here to speak to you as the Chair of beyondblue.
Throughout my political career I met many Police, Ambos, Firies and SES personnel.
I have been privileged to get to know a few of them very well.
Well enough to know their usual response to any praise for the extraordinary work they do is a shrug of the shoulders and a dismissive ‘just doing my job’.
But sometimes ‘just doing’ your job is extraordinary.
When I received the invitation to this Conference, I started thinking about the many times I personally have seen or heard about those extraordinary things. My memory went back to the many natural disaster scenes I had visited as Deputy Prime Minister and Prime Minister.
The scorched earth after Black Saturday.
The oceans of flood waters across Queensland in the summer between 2010 and 2011.
The terror still in people’s eyes as they described the flash flooding of Grantham and Toowoomba.
The flattened houses and smashed boats after Cyclone Yasi.
I could keep adding to this list.
And I am sure, so could each of you.
What stays with me, as clearly as the images of destruction, are the stories of heroism and stoicism. The courage and the caring.
The fact is that the events and duties most of us consider extraordinary are part of the job for the men and women of the emergency services and the volunteers, call centre staff, administrators, local, state and federal government officials and managers who support them.
And it is possible to do extraordinary things when you have the right systems in place to support you.
Systems that ensure the ordinary, work-a-day, repetitive tasks are done so that…
the equipment is maintained;
the rosters are updated;
training exercises happen;
and the list goes on.
But getting ready for the extraordinary is about more than procedures, processes and systems.
It’s also about leadership.
About deep personal commitment to your profession and to public service;
About ensuring the highest professional standards of integrity, fairness and accountability.
And it is exactly the same when it comes to building and maintaining mentally healthy workplaces.
Procedures, processes and systems that deal with everything from prevention to supporting people in crisis.
But – just as importantly – leadership and culture, commitment and values.
Of course, I realise that not everyone in the room works in emergency services.
I’m glad you’re here because the lessons we’ve learned at beyondblue about mental health and wellbeing in the emergency services sector apply broadly to other workplaces and volunteer organisations.
The first of those lessons is that workplaces where mental health is considered something to be focused on for a day or a month, that it’s a box to be ticked, are ones that will fail to improve.
In those workplaces employees know that those in power aren’t serious about change for the better.
Because there are no short cuts or formulaic answers. Creating a mentally healthy workplace requires sustained and authentic commitment.
It requires valuing mental health equally with physical health and safety concerns.
It requires mental health to be treated as core to the business, not a boutique sideline.
That’s why I was so pleased to see the theme of today’s conference –Strategy to Action.
Because that’s exactly what I want to talk to you about today. Strategy to action for mental health at work, at your work.
Let’s start with some figures.
One in two.
Almost one-in-two Australians will experience a mental health condition in their lifetime.
One million: that’s how many people in our nation are living with depression.
Two million: that’s the number of Australians who experience an anxiety condition every year.
So, if it’s not you, it will be your family member, or your friend or workmate.
Fifty-four per cent. That’s the disturbingly low percentage of Australians living with mental ill health who seek treatment. Nearly half struggle without appropriate help.
And so, to the most shocking number of all…
We know that on average, eight Australians lose their lives to suicide every day.
Let me put that another way – we lose around twice as many people to suicide as we do to road accidents.
And for each of those who die, we know that another 30 will have attempted suicide.
That is about 240 people who feel desperate enough to take their own lives, every single day.
If we are to tackle these statistics in any meaningful way, then we have to be addressing mental health everywhere that Australians work, learn, live and play. In schools and on sporting grounds. In homes and in workplaces.
And for every workplace, there is a tremendous upside to better supporting the mental health of employees. Creating a mentally healthy workplace will…
- Not only assist an organisation to meet its legal requirements;
- But will also yield a financial return on investment of $2.30 on average for every dollar invested;
- By leading to improved staff engagement, enhanced productivity and less time off.
The workplaces of emergency service personnel have a particular role to play because suicide rates for their employees are significantly more than those of other occupations, with men 1.4 times and women twice as likely as community members generally to take their own lives.
Step one of moving from strategy to action on mental health at work is understanding the size of the problem. These startling and concerning statistics leave us in no doubt. We face an enormous challenge.
Step two is understanding what we mean by the term mental health, which is frequently misunderstood and misused.
According to the World Health Organization, mental health is:
‘A state of wellbeing in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to the community.’
By that definition, mental health is a positive.
However, the term ‘mental health’ is often used as shorthand to describe mental health conditions such as depression or anxiety.
By that definition, mental health is a negative.
At beyondblue, we have moved on from this positive and negative approach. We actually think the best way of understanding mental health is to see it as a continuum. We use the colours green, yellow, orange and red as a tool to help individuals think about where they are at on any given day.
When you’re in the green – you have normal mood fluctuations.
You feel positive, active and energetic.
You have a sense of purpose, good concentration and take things in your stride – and you perform well at work.
When you’re in the yellow – you feel irritable and impatient.
You’re tense, less active and less energetic.
You have lapses in concentration and can be forgetful – and you are not at your best at work.
When you’re in the orange – you feel overwhelmed and doubt yourself.
You have negative thoughts and may become withdrawn and over tired.
You have poor concentration and can make bad decisions – and there are noticeable changes at work.
When you’re in the red – you’re in crisis.
You feel depressed and worthless, and you may experience feelings of hopelessness; panic attacks.
You may feel angry, isolated and have suicidal thoughts.
It’s likely that you have very poor concentration.
You may be experiencing symptoms of physical ill-health.
You’re constantly fatigued and exhausted – and there are substantial changes in your ability to perform at work.
Your position on that sliding scale can be influenced by many factors:
- your underlying physical health
- your personal experiences and stressors, like relationships, or money worries.
Work factors can also contribute to where you are on the continuum.
Work can be incredibly good – or incredibly bad – for our mental health.
Making it good for our mental health means creating a workplace with the following key characteristics:
- People at all levels of the organization have a shared vision of, and commitment to, making it a mentally healthy workplace.
- Work demands are realistic and balance the needs of the staff and the employer and don’t pose a risk to the mental health of individuals.
- Everyone feels comfortable speaking openly about mental health and
mental health conditions, without fear of stigma or discrimination.
- As a result, there is a culture of respect and inclusivity.
Let’s think about this in terms of the mental health continuum.
A mentally healthy workplace is one which supports as many staff as possible to be in the green – to be thriving and being their best.
It is one that empowers its staff with mental health literacy, so that someone moving into the yellow, or the orange, is aware of the warning signs and knows to seek help.
Its people know how to look out for their colleagues; how to recognise when someone is moving into the yellow or orange.
And when someone does notice this change, they have the confidence to have a conversation with that person, to check in on them.
They know what resources and supports are available.
And, of course, it is a workplace where, if someone does slide into the red, they will not fear stigma or be discriminated against.
They will be supported – just as if they had a physical ailment – and, wherever possible, enabled to stay at or return to work.
What does all this mean for emergency services personnel and their workplaces?
The hard news is people who work in emergency situations face a unique set of risk factors, which can include:
But there is good news.
They also enjoy a unique set of protective factors including:
So how can employers best manage the risks and harness these protective factors to make a mentally healthy environment?
To help us think about that, let’s imagine a natural disaster scenario like a flash flood, where there is urgency, danger and a real risk of loss of life. Then imagine:
- unusual work hours;
- high emotional, mental or physical demands;
- challenging workplace cultures; and
- repeated exposure to traumatic events, and to people, including colleagues, who are injured or killed.
- That one of the emergency service workers arriving at the scene is already in the orange.
- That they are exhausted, not thinking straight, not backing their own judgement.
- But they feel like they can’t say anything – out of shame, self-stigma or not wanting to let their mates or the public down.
- Imagine the impact that could have on the outcome of an already tense and terrible situation, for members of the community, for colleagues, and, as importantly, for that individual.
- Experiences of mateship and shared resilience;
- Personal growth from working together to support families and communities in difficult times; and
- A sense of being in a place of connection, support and purpose.
A mentally healthy workplace culture would combat the risk of a potentially dire result by: encouraging everyone to identify the orange in themselves or their colleagues, to seek help early.
Put simply, a mentally healthy workplace could help keep everyone safer.
That’s certainly an outcome worth striving for.
I know many of you in this room today are leaders.
And as leaders you set the tone.
You are in the strongest position to positively influence the working environment, management practices and experiences of employees.
You have the power to change the status quo.
Now is the time to make visible, long-term commitments to mental health in your workplaces, including:
- Making mental health a business improvement priority;
- Allocating the necessary resources for change;
- Treating mental health at work as you would physical safety by integrating good health and safety management into all decisions, policies and procedures;
- Communicating a zero-tolerance of bullying and discrimination and walking the talk; and
- Providing the most flexible working conditions possible.
What you say matters as well as what you do.
Speak openly about mental health in the workplace and what it means to you.
Find your own words – you don’t need to be an expert and you need to sound like you.
To many of you, this may all seem like a huge and daunting challenge. But help is at hand through beyondblue, particularly through our national workplace initiative, Heads Up, which is a one-stop online shop.
It’s designed to give every employer from any industry practical advice and tools to create mentally healthy workplaces, improve participation and productivity.
And it’s free.
It includes our How To Guide for Organisations, an easy to follow, step-by-step bible on how to develop a holistic and sustainable workplace mental health strategy and action plan.
For the past four years – because of the need we saw – we have developed and offered a workplace program specifically dedicated to police and emergency services.
We aim to support police and emergency services agencies to:
- Reduce the stigma associated with mental health conditions;
- Reduce attempted suicide and suicide rates among police and emergency services personnel;
- Increase the number of personnel acting to manage their own mental health and support colleagues they may be concerned about;
- Increase the number and capability of agencies taking action to create and maintain mentally healthy workplaces; and
- Increase and improve the public awareness and appreciation of the unique and challenging role of first responders.
In 2016, we worked directly with representatives from across the emergency services sector to develop the Good practice framework for mental health and wellbeing in first responder organisations.
Since its launch our small team has been working to advise agencies on how to apply the guide, reviewing their strategies and building capability.
The framework has been well received and I want to acknowledge the leaders who are using it to improve culture and practice in their own workplaces.
And while it was developed with, and for, police and emergency service agencies, it has a lot of information that is applicable to other workplaces whose staff work in challenging situations.
We have copies here today or you can jump onto headsup.org.au and download it.
At beyondblue, we endeavour to gather the best of evidence to inform what we recommend.
For police and emergency services personnel we believe we can develop even more sophisticated strategy and action plans with better evidence.
While we know there are elevated suicide rates, we don’t accurately know the prevalence of mental health conditions among police and emergency services personnel in Australia.
While we know some general things about the special risk and protective factors, we don’t have the more granular details.
So we are on a mission to change that.
With a funding contribution from the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC, beyondblue has undertaken a world-first survey of the mental health and wellbeing of police and emergency service personnel across the country.
Thirty-three police, fire, ambulance and SES agencies participated.
And nearly 21,000 individuals took part in the study.
Nothing so ambitious has been attempted before and this research will be quoted and referenced and used by mental health organisations, emergency service agencies and researchers across the globe for years to come.
This level of participation tells us that this topic is hugely important to those working in the field.
What greater evidence could there be that people in your industry want to talk about their mental health … and want their leaders to listen to what they have to say … than this massive participation rate?
The survey results will arm us with unprecedented national data, which we will analyse and use – in partnership with the sector – to further develop the strategies and actions to reduce the mental health risks of first responders
in the field;
in the office; and
in the aftermath.
The research will be complete and its finding released publicly at the end of the year.
But today is too good an opportunity to miss and so I want to share some early, top-level themes that are emerging.
The Study has three phases.
The first is qualitative.
In 2016, we undertook qualitative research to gather the stories of current and former members of police and emergency services – documenting their mental health experiences, as well as interviewing partners and families.
The stories told us that workplace practices matter.
In fact, the first phase of our Study found that poor workplace practices and culture are equally – if not more – debilitating for emergency service workers than exposure to trauma.
I am going to repeat that:
poor workplace practices and culture are equally – if not more – debilitating than exposure to trauma.
A great example of culture eating strategy for breakfast.
Phase two of the Study is winding up now.
This phase encompasses the survey – Answering the Call – which opened in October last year and closed this March.
Anonymity was guaranteed and we surveyed respondents about their experience of mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress and their thoughts of suicide.
We also collected information about:
Their experience of stigma;
Their use of support services and programs;
Individual and organisational risk and protective factors; and
Attitudinal and behavioural factors.
Individuals and individual agencies will not be identified when the results are published later this year, but agencies will be given confidential, bespoke reports with their own, deidentified workforce data and analysis to allow them to identify hotspots.
Analysis to date of the survey is confirming three major themes:
First, as I have already emphasized, poor workplace practices and culture can be as damaging to mental health as occupational trauma;
Second, the need to educate people and support them to get help when they need it; and
Third, the dangers of organisational and personal stigma.
The second phase, the survey, delves even further.
It is indicating workplaces that are supportive and inclusive, have regular discussions about workplace experiences, and effectively manage emotional demands on staff have lower rates of PTSD and psychological distress.
In other words, building a supportive work culture is like giving your staff a mental health inoculation.
It’s in everyone’s best interests.
The survey also enabled us to generate an understanding of respondents’ mental health using psychometric testing.
Many people who showed results indicating they are experiencing high or very high distress – and probable PTSD – did not recognise that they had a mental health issue.
This is a major concern.
It is early days and we are still reviewing the data, but this finding suggests that a significant portion of police and emergency services personnel still have poor mental health literacy.
They aren’t recognising the signs and symptoms of depression, anxiety or PTSD in themselves.
To be blunt … they know mental health is important, but don’t realise they may be in or heading to the orange or the red.
The survey also found that individuals have a positive regard for – and are supportive of – colleagues experiencing mental health conditions.
This says a great deal about the camaraderie that exists in police and emergency services.
But let’s think about what this means.
It is indicating a disparity between the way people feel about their colleagues and how they see themselves.
It appears that self-stigma – fear of what others may think or an inability to talk openly about personal feelings and circumstances – is still stubbornly common.
The evidence, which is being confirmed by this research work, shows that high self-stigma is associated with poorer mental health outcomes and organisational or workplace stigma is a major barrier to help-seeking.
Employees who perceived lower levels of stigma in their organisation were more likely to seek help early.
That raises a question:
How is your organisation’s commitment to their mental health and wellbeing really perceived by your people?
You might think that you’re supportive of employees experiencing mental health conditions, but the ultimate barometer will always be what your people really think.
NSW Ambulance CEO Dominic Morgan recently acknowledged the widespread and under-reported bullying, harassment and neglected mental health problems within the service, with his apology to paramedics suffering mental anguish.
Victorian Police Commissioner Graham Ashton was completely open about his need to take extended leave out last year because he had “become rundown, both physically and mentally”, with the full support of his employer, the state government.
Ambulance Victoria CEO Tony Walker speaks about his overall wellbeing strategy, which includes visiting a counsellor regularly to help him deal with the stresses of his role.
These examples signal change. And good leadership that is honest and not defensive.
And our national research will contribute to this change: exposing the truth, acknowledging the need and driving change against baseline data.
Phase three will see us take our findings directly to the agencies that participated in the study, with each receiving an individual, confidential report.
beyondblue will then support these agencies to turn evidence and strategies into action.
The full report – and sector-by-sector results – will be an invaluable guide for state and national policymakers.
Everybody who took the time to participate in the Answering The Call survey did so for the right reasons…
to make their voices heard and to share their experiences
to reduce the incidence of mental health issues among emergency service employees and volunteers
to help establish good mental health practices in their workplaces
and to bring down the suicide rate.
So, to all those who promoted, supported and completed the survey and every person and agency that trusted beyondblue with this invaluable information …
I say thank-you.
Thank-you on behalf of all those who will benefit from your efforts.
While I have been speaking – somewhere in Australia – police, firies, ambos, SES and other emergency services personnel and volunteers have responded to a call.
How many times in a single day do we become aware of the work they are doing?
- hearing distant sirens;
- seeing flashing lights in our rear-view mirrors;
- reading about harrowing events on our news feeds.
It could be a natural disaster: a flood, bushfire, cyclone.
But it is much more likely to be:
- a house fire;
- car accident;
- heart attack;
- drug overdose;
- ·or a person wanting to take their own life.
Australians have a proud history of answering the call, even if it risks their own wellbeing – physical or psychological.
And why do we do that?
Because it is the right thing to do.
Now the call is with you: The leaders, the decision makers, the agents of change.
Your workforces are calling on you to ensure that there are dedicated human and financial resources to support the development and implementation of a sustainable workplace mental health strategy.
Use the beyondblue resources available today to deliver change.
And when it is available, be open to the findings of the research, and to dedicating the time and resources necessary to understand what the findings mean for your organisation, and how to translate these findings into additional meaningful action.
Even if your organisation is not one of those involved in the research, the findings will still have relevance.
Strategy to action. A great theme for a conference. But an even better theme to take back to your workplace combined with a determination to act on mental health.
I thank you for your kind attention today and for all I know you will do for change.