WOW members conduct research that improves mental health prospects for emergency service workers

As the COVID-19 pandemic has unfolded globally, and Australia recovers from an apocalyptic bushfire season, the wellbeing and management of emergency services workers are at the forefront of discussion.

Photo credit: The Guardian

For emergency services workers, exposure to trauma is a regular occurrence and can lead to psychological distress and injury. Previous research suggests between 16 and 34 per cent of emergency service workers suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms, which is more than three times the lifetime prevalence for the general population.

Operational workloads strain the capacity of emergency services workers to perform their roles and also contribute to psychological stress. People management systems and support mechanisms are often not configured to relieve the impact of these stressors.

WOW members Professor Keith Townsend, Associate Professor Rebecca Loudoun and Professor Adrian Wilkinson are chief investigators on the ARC Linkage Project ‘Improving people management systems in emergency services’ with industry partners United Voice – QLD Branch, United Voice – NT Branch and Ambulance Employees Association SA Inc.  

With data collection finalised last year, this project aimed to better understand the role of, and interaction between, people management sub-systems and how these interactions affect outcomes for ambulance officers and the ambulance service. This new knowledge can assist practitioners and policy makers to develop guidance for optimal people management in emergency services.

Central to this research is ensuring the best support for workers in emergency service organisations (specifically, ambulance officers) is provided, which will in turn provide the best services for patients and contribute to wellbeing more generally. This goal came a step closer to being achieved this year as the United Workers Union used findings from the research project to lobby for reforms in QLD’s legislation to assess the benefits of presumptive legislation covering PTSD and other psychological injuries to first responders and emergency service workers.

A presumptive position reverses the current onus for ambulance officers to prove they developed diagnosed PTSD as a result of their employment, which means the cause of the PTSD is automatically presumed at the first instance to be work related, for the purposes of claiming compensation under the legislation.

Removing this potential source of stress for those suffering with PTSD and highlighting the importance of helping people return to meaningful work is a step closer to supporting our frontline workers.

Photo credit: Anxiety and Depression Association of America

‘It would allow our ambulance officers to be confident in putting their hands up and saying they are struggling, without fear of reprisal from their employer and insurers’, said a spokesperson for the United Workers Union.

‘This is very exciting, and we see it as an important win for the Union and emergency workers in general. We believe this legislation will save the lives of both paramedics and patients and are pleased the union, Queensland Ambulance Service and the Queensland government were able to use this research to collaborate on this important outcome’, said Professor Townsend.

Read the full research report here.