As an industry, public safety is dedicated to the complex, emotional, and often traumatic side of the human experience. This makes it all the more important to address the very real and very understandable human responses to those events which can and will happen within every agency. Failure to do so has dire consequences for the individual and their mental wellbeing, but also for the industry as a whole, who will lose passionate, invested, and high quality candidates who can no longer sustain themselves in the field.
Some of the most common indicators of a potential problem often seen in first responders include:
- Decreased productivity and low morale
- Short temper or erratic behavior
- Difficulty sleeping, fatigue
- Sudden increase in the amount of alcohol consumption
- And more
It’s essential to provide our essential workers with resources, support, and most importantly institutionalized infrastructure designed to mitigate the challenges which come with the job, so they can successfully continue performing in their passion and their career for as long as they want. First responders dedicate their lives to protecting us – so we need to ask ourselves: Who’s protecting the first responders?
Build trust and confidence
Having a proactive member (or members) of their leadership team whom agency personnel can trust and confide in is an excellent first step. It will vary from agency to agency, and in some cases, the immediate supervisor might not be the best person to address the problem. In these instances, a designated person (like a grievance officer or counselor) can be appointed to help out employees by guiding them to the right resources and helping them feel heard. Regardless of who the person is in particular, identifying one or more people before a time of crisis and ensuring it’s someone employees are aware of, and feel comfortable with, is essential. Because it’s so common for individuals to succumb to distress as the result of not knowing how to ask for help, this step is the most simple but most important because it can be the gateway to additional resources.
Employee Assistance Programs
Employee Assistant Programs (EAP) usually work as comprehensive chains that guide those in need toward the right resources, and then assist the counseling and healing process. Effectively taking advantage of EAP includes creating awareness among employees that they are available in the first place, and encouraging them to take up counseling to cope with their problems. This may require continuous effort to foster a workplace culture where mental health support is destigmatized – a common challenge in the industry. While some distress calls are easily recognizable, others might take a certain degree of help and encouragement to surface and identify. Apart from helping employees believe that their experiences are valid and their voices deserve to be heard, EAPs should provide other necessary medical help or facilitate access to it, if needed.
Silent cries for help must be recognized
Actively developing an agency culture where management looks for these signs and keeps personnel aware of resources can ensure a smooth process when the need for help arises. It starts with organization-wide dialogue, and conversations where personnel are made aware of the availability of resources and support, as well as ensuring their comfort with knowing how to access them. It is advised not to wait until help is needed, as it is always going to be difficult for the person in need to initiate that request when in the peak of distress.
Instead, consistently talk about the availability of key resources, and normalize the process to access them within your organization. Although this is often not possible, it’s worth exploring if your agency can contract with third-party mental health services in addition to EAP, especially ones that provide the services on an individual, confidential, and remote basis, as they are more easily accessible and often more comfortable.
Peer support groups
This helps the employee see that their problems are common, which is an excellent step to destigmatize them within your agency. However it’s important to note that while peers should be encouraged to work as one within the organization and lean on each other, it’s best to have a qualified external resource be present and accessible to supervise these groups. When employees rely on only one other, they are filling a role they are not qualified to, resulting in issues with confidentiality, second-hand trauma, and other blurred lines that can create more problems than they solve.
Peer support groups can be a challenge, but they can also serve an important purpose, especially so employees who want to speak to one another have a designated space to do so, while maintaining boundaries during work with other individuals who may not feel comfortable commiserating. For these reasons and more, it’s important to regulate groups in the workplace, especially in terms of confidentiality.
There are a number of both conventional and unconventional resources that agencies can contract with to support their employees. Third-party resources are a good way of outsourcing the counseling and therapy process to qualified professionals who can do the job efficiently. A starting point to identifying possible providers could be searching in your local community, or online, including the websites below:
One common example sometimes found in agencies includes animal therapy through nonprofit teams who specifically make services available to first responders. Regardless of what avenues your agency explores, consider scheduling them at a consistent cadence – even if it’s not often – rather than waiting for a big traumatic event before introducing the resource.
In an industry whose foundation rests on the passion and hard work of first responders, it’s essential we address the uglier impact their work can have on them and protect them through systemized access to resources and support.