When we dial 000, it’s often under traumatic circumstances that can have a lifetime impact; but how do these events affect those who work in emergency services and are there systems in place to support these people?

Members of the Centre for Work, Organisation and Wellbeing recently completed the ARC Linkage project ‘Improving people management systems in emergency services’ in collaboration with industry partners Ambulance Employees Association SA Inc and United Voice (Northern Territory Branch).

Chief investigators Keith Townsend, Rebecca Loudoun and Adrian Wilkinson (above) found that operational workloads place strain on the capacity of ambulance officers to perform their roles and also contribute to psychological stress. People management systems and support mechanisms are often not configured to ameliorate the impact of these stressors.

The team conducted 1216 surveys and 72 interviews with emergency services employees across Queensland, South Australia and Northern Territory which revealed disheartening findings:

  • More symptoms of PTSD are reported by employees with a longer tenure of employment.
  • Anxiety is at very high levels among the workforce, with 40% of the sample indicating they have extremely high anxiety.
  • 10% of ambulance service staff in Queensland and 8.5% in South Australia showed symptoms of PTSD, indicating some paramedics should be treated as patients. Another 6.6% in Queensland and 4% in South Australia were found to be on the verge of a provisional diagnosis for PTSD.
  • Fatigue is a major problem for more than half of the sample.
  • About 20% of employees are seriously looking for another job.

Despite the extreme pressures and emotional stress associated with the job, many of the respondents are dedicated to their career saving lives.  ‘A lot of paramedics live, eat sleep and breathe the job.  So, their entire identity is wrapped up in being an ambo…I’ve been a paramedic for 25 or 26 years and couldn’t conceive of not being a paramedic’ an interview respondent said. 

Central to this research was to ensure that the best support for workers in emergency service organisations (specifically, paramedics) is provided, which will in turn provide the best services for patients, contributing to wellbeing more generally. The project assisted organisations where employees work in the context of trauma, to ensure that their various systems of people management (HRM systems, work systems, support systems) fit together to ensure improved outcomes for them, but also for employees through, for example, reducing stressors and improving long-term employment.

Photo Credit: abc.net.au

Funded by the Australian Research Council (Linkage grant 2016–2018), this project has had an immediate effect in South Australia with government committing more resources to paramedics.

“The research team will continue to work with our industry partners on this issue and we are currently working on publications to support this cause”, said Townsend.